In the Field: An Interview with Cheyney Jackson of the Marmot Recovery Foundation
The Endangered Species Print Project Vancouver Island Marmots print is one of the four original prints that the we launched with back in 2009. I was drawn to the Vancouver Island Marmot due to the first part of it’s name. I’d recently spent 7 days off the coast of Vancouver Island on a family camping-kayaking trip. I was impressed and in awe of the immensity of the wild nature of the island and surrounding area. Bald eagles, seals, orca whales, porpoises, cedar trees and salmon. Crystal clear and bioluminescent water. Truly amazing stuff! I absolutely did not want to leave and look forward to visiting again.
Below is my interview with Cheyney Jackson, Field Coordinator for the Marmot Recovery Foundation. Cheyney shares stories of marmots in the field, how the recovery is going, and how she keeps track of marmots who live very high up in the mountains.
The 2015 Marmot Recovery Foundation Field Crew
Molly: First off can you tell us a little bit about the Vancouver Island marmot?
CJ: The Vancouver Island marmot is a large ground squirrel that lives in the subalpine meadows and rock slides of Vancouver Island mountains. Vancouver Island marmots are unique – they have a different appearance, morphology, and behavior than any other marmot. They live in groups of marmots called “colonies”, and hibernate for seven months of the year. That’s ~210 days! In the summer months, marmots spend lots of time above ground. When they are not sitting on rocks, basking in the sun, or foraging for delicious plants, they can be very playful – they box, wrestle, and chase one another.
Molly: Why are theses marmots endangered? An endangered marmot sounds kind of funny to many people here in the states. The marmots that live here are so plentiful some people consider them to be a pest.
CJ: That’s one advantage to working to recover an alpine or subalpine species – they are unlikely to become a pest to anyone! Predation is the main source of mortality and the primary cause of population decline for the Vancouver Island marmot. They are hunted by both terrestrial (cougars and wolves) and avian (golden eagles) predators, so they must maintain a high level of vigilance to avoid being eaten.
photo: Jared Hobbs
Molly: When Endangered Species Print Project launched our Vancouver Island marmots print the species’ wild population was at 140 individuals. We have happily watched the numbers climb over the years. Can you give us a brief overview of the wild Vancouver Island marmot population. What was the lowest count and where does the population stand today?
CJ: Although we still have lots to do to make sure the species will persist and thrive in the long-term, we’re thrilled by what we’ve accomplished so far. The lowest count for the wild population was ~35 marmots, if you can believe it! At that time, thankfully, there was already a lifeboat population in captivity to ensure that the species didn’t go extinct. Since 2003, we have released 469 captive-bred marmots back to the wild, and there is now a wild population of ~300 marmots. That sounds pretty impressive (to me, anyway!) but that isn’t a lot of protection against some kind of unexpected catastrophe or disease. We’d like to see a much larger wild population (at least 400-600 marmots), and one with a greater distribution and with stable or increasing population trends over a period of several years.
Molly: This recovery is due to the work of The Marmot Recovery Foundation captive breeding program. How are pups released into the wild and how are the marmots surveyed once they have been released?
CJ: Vancouver Island marmots are currently bred at the Calgary and Toronto Zoos, although there were other breeding facilities in the past. In captivity, marmots use plywood boxes with entrance and exit holes as surrogate “burrows” – they live, sleep, hibernate, and raise young in them! So before we release captive-bred marmots into the wild, we visit the release site to install nest boxes that connect to a real burrow or refugium. At release time, we fill the nest boxes with bedding from marmots’ enclosure, and provide some snacks, too. This ensures that there is something familiar to the marmots in all that crazy mountainous terrain, and that they don’t have to search for food right away.
It’s very important to us to monitor the survival of marmots that we release into the wild. A few weeks before a marmot is released, our project veterinarian surgically implants radiotelemetry transmitters into a space in their abdomen called the peritoneal cavity. The transmitter emits a signal that helps us to track the marmot if they leave the site, and it also tells us how warm they are. The temperature is important, because that gives us an idea of whether they are living, hibernating, or deceased. In some regions of Vancouver Island, the mountains are so big and the terrain is so challenging that we have to use helicopters to check on the marmots. Without transmitters, they’d be almost impossible to find.
photo: Oli Gardner
Molly: The sub-alpine meadow habitat of the Vancouver Island marmot looks as incredibly lovely as it sounds - do you have a chance to go into the field as part of your work for the foundation and if so what has that experience been like? Rough on the knees, I’d imagine- it looks very steep in the photos.
CJ: It sure feels steep, especially at the start of the field season before I’ve got my “mountain legs” back! I started off working as a wildlife technician for this project, so I spent several summers hiking a mountain a day to survey marmot colonies, or camping near the marmots to shepherd them from predators. It really is gorgeous up there, and I loved being able to observe the marmots in their natural habitat. I learned something new every single visit, whether it was how marmot parents carry their pups (by the fur on top of their rump!) or how marmots cool down if they overheat (they lie on the snow, on their tummies like a sea-star!) I still try to get out as much as I possibly can, but I have a fantastic team of young wildlife technicians that have stronger knees and better eyes to do the hard stuff!
photo: Oli Gardner
Molly: While reading your website I found it really interesting that most marmot colonies discovered during the 1980s and 1990s were not found by biologists, but by loggers, hunters and hikers. You have an Observer Program which asks anyone who sees a marmot in the wild to take careful notes and contact you with information.
CJ: It’s wonderful to know that there are so many extra eyes out there, looking out for this species. We know of at least 25 colonies at present, and we monitor those fairly closely each summer. But Vancouver Island marmots don’t always stay where we release them, or where we expect them to stay. Some marmots decide to “disperse” – they leave the colony that they were born or released at, and travel through the landscape until they find another colony or marmot to join. We discovered last year, to our great surprise, that marmots can travel over 30km in a single year! So we need all the help that we can get to keep track of dispersers. And if marmots head in the wrong direction and find themselves in an unsuitable habitat like a backyard or rock quarry (or the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre this past summer!), we rely on our Observer Program to tell us where to find the marmots so that we can move them back to a proper marmot colony.
Molly: I love to ask people to share their favorite or most exciting creature (or plant) encounter in the wild. Would you like to tell us yours?
CJ: Probably one of the neatest experiences I had was a few years ago, when I first saw how determined marmots can be when trying to protect their pups. I was hunkered down below the main burrow, sitting under a tree quietly and watching an adult female. The female was watching me, too, and after a few minutes, she seemed to have reached a decision. She came running down the slope towards me, and at the last second, before I thought she was going to run into me, she veered off to the side and out of sight behind some boulders. I was puzzled, I had no idea what she was doing, but a few minutes later, I saw her come back carrying a pup hanging from her mouth. Now, this was August, so that pup was three months old and not at all small in size. She had to put him down twice to rest, but she carried him all the way up to the burrow where another adult waited. Then she went back and did the same trip two more times, each time bringing back another big pup to the safety of the burrow. That last trip, she had to stop and rest at least half a dozen times. There had been a cougar that had taken several pups from that colony that summer, probably from another litter, and I later realized that I was sitting very close to the pups’ mortality site. The female didn’t want to take any chances on calling the pups back to her, so she carried them herself. How about that for parenting skills?
Molly: Any other marmot milestones or info you’d like to share with our readers?
CJ: I’d encourage anyone who is interested in the Vancouver Island marmot or our recovery efforts to check out our website (www.marmots.org). It has some great information about the work that we’re doing, and some amazing photos. This past summer, we started posting blog updates on the webpage so that readers can follow along with our activities over the course of the active season. The marmots are hibernating now, but I imagine we’ll do something similar again starting in May 2016. We have also launched a YouTube channel (Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery) that features videos taken by remote camera at some of our colony sites. I find it so inspiring to watch marmots living in the wild, working to survive even with so many challenges. We are really excited to share this footage with a wider audience!