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Island marmot to grace U.S. stamp series featuring endangered species; Marmota vancouverensis has been having a tough year

The stamp series features creatures whose populations are critically low in the U.S. and its territories — and one that makes its home exclusively in the mountains of central Vancouver Island

A series of American postage stamps due out early next year featuring creatures whose populations are critically low in the U.S. and its territories will include one pretty adorable out-of-towner: the Vancouver Island marmot.

The series of 20 stamps is intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act in the United States.

The Marmota vancouverensis species makes its home exclusively in the mountains of central Vancouver Island, but the U.S. postal service made an exception for the Island marmot, saying it was including endangered animals “living near U.S. borders.”

And that’s just fine with the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation.

One of the world’s most endangered mammals, the marmot will need all the help it can get as a combination of a poor spring breeding season and predators is keeping its numbers on the edge of extinction.

“[The stamp] was a real surprise to us and it brings so much more awareness,” said Adam Taylor, executive director of the foundation. “The majority of extinctions on the planet over 200 years have been on islands, leaving animals like the Vancouver Island marmot at extreme risk.”

Taylor said the designation as an endangered species in the U.S. makes it illegal to trade in Vancouver Island marmots or their body parts in that country, which does help to protect this otherwise very Canadian species.

The marmot is one of only six mammals endemic to Canada, a group that includes the wood bison and Peary caribou.

The Island’s unique marmot species hit a low point of fewer than 30 animals in 2003. But breeding programs at the Calgary and Toronto zoos and at the Tony Barrett Mount Washington Recovery Centre — as well as huge habitat-protection projects — have helped to slowly rebuild populations on the Island’s alpine meadows.

In 2013, the population hit a high of 346, but weather and predators, among other factors, took a huge toll. The following year, 266 animals were counted. By 2017, the numbers had dropped again, to 167. Since then, the population has been slowly recovering.

Taylor said the 2021 count was up to 258 marmots in about 20 colonies.

Researchers are still sifting through “megabytes of photos” taken over the spring, summer and fall to estimate the 2022 population, but early indications aren’t promising.

Taylor said marmots awoke from hibernation to deep snow, which makes food harder to find and could affect reproduction. The snow pack also lasted long into the spring.

“We noticed a lot of desperate behaviours, like marmots eating tree bark,” he said. “That impacts body condition, especially in females.”

Marmots breed right after hibernating and birth in June, said Taylor. Without proper nutrition to build body reserves, females have a hard time producing milk for the young, he said.

When marmots have to range far from their dens for food — particularly their favourite, the sugar-laden lupin plant — they are exposed to predators like golden eagles, cougars and wolves.

Taylor said there is some promising news. Fifty marmots born in captivity are scheduled for release next spring — double the total from last year — after a “banner year for reproduction” at all three captive breeding facilities.

The marmot on the U.S. postage stamp is a male named Herman that was born in the Toronto zoo but never made it into the wild on the Island. Because of health problems, he remained at the zoo until his death, said Taylor, adding Herman was one of the few marmots that didn’t mind being cuddled by humans.

All the photos on the U.S. stamps — ranging from the Mexican gray wold and Lower Keys marsh rabbit to the Wyoming Toad and Golden-cheeked warbler — were selected from the massive photo bank complied by Joel Sartore.

His Photo Ark collection of 13,000 images documents “species before they disappear — and to get people to care while there’s still time,” according to the photographer.

It isn’t the first time the Vancouver Island marmot has graced a postage stamp. Canada Post featured Marmota vancouverensis on a 1981 stamp as part of an endangered wildlife series.

About 21.5 million of the 17-cent stamps were produced by the Canada Bank Note Company.

The Canadian Mint also struck a Vancouver Island marmot 50-cent piece in 2019.

The marmot had another moment of fame when it was featured in the recent Netflix documentary Island of the Sea Wolves, which chronicled the life of a pack of Island wolves as well as a family of bald eagles, sea otters, black bear and five Island marmots born in captivity and released into the mountains of Vancouver Island.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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