How ‘unbearably cute’ Canadian marmots were saved thanks to ski slopes

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Vancouver Island marmots are hitting the slopes in a race to save their species, which even wildlife conservationists call “unbearably cute.”

The woodland rodent, a cousin of squirrels and groundhogs, can be found throughout North America, Europe and Asia, but the critically endangered Marmota vancouverensis, the largest of all marmot species, has become a symbol of wildlife conservation in Canada.

Following decades of habitat destruction by humans and animal predation, the V.I. marmot population had been reduced to just 30 individuals by 2003, according to the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation.

Now, thanks to recent efforts by conservationists, there are approximately 200 marmots across Vancouver Island.

Adam Taylor, the foundation’s executive director, called their mission to save the V.I. marmot a “moral obligation.”

“They are really good ambassadors [for conservationism],” he told the National Observer last week, owing to their irresistible charm. “They are entertaining to watch. And there’s no doubt about it, they are unbearably cute.”

However, it was only recently that wildlife researchers hatched a novel plan to boost the marmot population — by encouraging the animals to make a home on ski slopes located on Mount Washington in British Columbia. They found the ski-resort habitat ideal for marmot breeding, and made for a suitable “halfway house” for captive-bred marmots who have less experience in the wild. Later, many are recaptured and released into more remote regions, such as nearby Strathcona Provincial Park.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” said Taylor. “If you look at a ski hill, it looks exactly like marmot habitat.”

Ski slopes promise benefits that marmots can’t count on in the wild, namely food, shelter and safety from predators such as mountain lions, wolves and birds of prey, who tend to avoid human contact. Meanwhile, resort operators are supportive, keeping the area clear of trees and reducing human activity that might disturb rehabilitation.

“‘We need success stories in the conservation world,” Taylor said. “We need to be able to demonstrate that it’s possible to bring these species back, because that’s the task we’re going to be engaged in more and more often.”

He said the V.I. marmot’s success is cause for “real optimism,” but conservationists aren’t slowing down their efforts yet.

“If we walked away today, the species would absolutely fly back into extinction very quickly,” he said.

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