Marmot keeper Jordyn Alger walks over Mount Washington on Vancouver Island and is perplexed. "I've never seen a marmot on a walk here," she says. Despite her radio tracking equipment, she falls short this hot July afternoon. But as Alger speaks, as if to reward her optimism, a tagged wild marmot appears on a tree trunk looking at us.
The consistency of her observations reveals an exceptionally effective program of rehabilitation, involving critically endangered Vancouver Island marmots (Marmota vancouverensis) back from near extinction.
The species is distinguished from the other five North American marmot species – and 14 more worldwide – by its dark brown coat. Landscape changes, often linked to trees invading their favorite glades, on Vancouver Island throughout the 20th century fragmented the marmots' mountain habitat, leaving populations isolated. In 2003 there were less than 30 left in the wild, and they were so sparsely distributed that many could not find a mate.
Experts hoped they could breed marmots in captivity, where the animals could be raised safely and healthily before being released into the wild. But captive breeding alone wasn't enough to bring the marmots back from the brink of extinction: the animals struggled to integrate into their natural mountain habitats.
“These captive-bred marmots have so many challenges when we release them into the wild,” explains Cheyney Jackson, field coordinator at the Marmot Recovery Foundation. Having no experience of the outside world, the captive-bred marmots didn't know how to dig hibernation holes, how far to roam, or how to respond to predators. “Everything is new to them,” says Jackson. They have the right instincts, but need help to remember them. So the scientists founded the world's first and only marmot school.
By introducing the captive-bred marmots into an existing marmot colony, the scientists were able to give them the education they would need from the marmots that had lived their lives in the wild. The tough, wild-born marmots would teach their gentler cousins the ways of the mountainside. After a year, the graduating students would be transferred to a new location to repopulate abandoned or struggling colonies.
The marmot looking at us from its trunk is right when it is suspicious: by the end of summer it will be recaptured and relocated. The translocations have been remarkably successful – not only did the six fortified colonies survive, but they split off another four themselves. There are now more than 200 of these marmots in the wild.
The success of the program is drawing the attention of other endangered animal breeding programs, and while no tiger school is in the works yet, it's easy to see how any captive-bred animal could benefit from a little bit of training.