A Calgary-born-and-raised Vancouver Island marmot surveys its new surroundings from a nest box shortly after being released on the island. The nest box is typically placed over a natural burrow until the captive-bred marmot is acclimated to help with the process of adapting to the wild.

Muskrat love has got nothing on the Vancouver Island marmot

Scientists playing rodent matchmaker having great success rehabilitating Canada's most endangered mammal, but much more work needed

Sure the Vancouver Island marmot is cute.

But that hasn’t helped the little guy much in the singles scene.

Neither has the new wardrobe, those daily visits to the gym, nor the constant scouring of the internet for the latest dating tips from e-Harmony and GQ.

But what has worked for Vancouver Island’s fuzziest icon in his bid to breed like a rabbit is the help and support of his own personal love doctor, Axel Moehrenschlager.

To be clear, Moehrenschlager is a modest, quiet man, who politely but firmly rejects the love doctor title, and generally leaves the hands-on work with the pint-sized rodents to the other zookeepers and scientists at the Calgary Zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre.

But as the zoo’s director of conservation and science, Moehrenschlager is ultimately responsible for 13 marmot yearlings that have been released on Vancouver Island in recent weeks as part of an ongoing — and highly successful — captive breeding program.

on the rocksThe cuddly-looking little rock-dweller may inspire bad jokes from writers and delighted squees from casual observers, but saving Canada’s most endangered mammal is serious business.

And yes, Moehrenschlager is proud of their progress.

“I think it is one of the most dramatic recoveries for an endangered species in such a relatively short time anywhere,” he said. “I think the primary reason why it’s been working well is the level of co-operation between the different agencies. It’s been exceptionally good.”

The Calgary Zoo got its first Vancouver Island marmots in the late 1990s when the population was one hungry wolf pack away from extinction. At the instigation of the provincial government, spurred by a small group of Island conservationists, a handful of marmots was taken from the wild and paired up under the watchful eyes of scientists there and in a few other locations.

The program’s initial years were about establishing a sustainable colony at the DWCC, an off-site branch of the zoo outside the public eye that is dedicated strictly to species rehabilitation. There, matchmakers discovered some concrete trends. The most successful breeders were younger, but not the youngest. They had previously had a pup. And they had been paired with their partner for more than a year.

Vancouver Island marmots are not indiscriminate breeders. They are social animals and will stray, but are most successful with a steady partner. Scientists work hard to find compatible pairings and bypass a marmot tendency to mate with cousins and siblings. Genetic diversity is important for the health of the species, and difficult to create when you are dealing with only about two-dozen prospective parents.

The number of pups delivered in Calgary varies from year to year; four have arrived in 2016. Once they are a year old, the zoo turns them over to the Vancouver Island Marmot Recovery Foundation. They are quarantined for a while at a facility on Mount Washington to ensure their health, given a surgically implanted tracker, then released — hopefully to find mates and add to a growing number of pups born in the wild.

Dr AxelCheyney Jackson, the field coordinator for the foundation, said the knowledge and support of the zoo and other partners in the captive breeding program has been crucial to the survival of the species.

“It’s been huge,” she said. “The recovery of the species to date is largely due to them.”

When the first breeding program pups were introduced back into the wild in 2003, there were about 30 marmots living on Vancouver Island. That number is now estimated at about 300.

The goal is ultimately to get the species downgraded from the national “endangered” list to the list of “special concern,” which basically means it will have reached a point of self-sustainability.

But there is still a long way to go. Initial estimates pegged the “safe” population at 600. But in the wake of further study, and given the number of variable factors involved, the rehabilitation team is hesitant to adopt any figure at all. Instead, a recent reassessment resulted in a new focus on trends and making sure the wild population is large enough to rebound from the unexpected. This spring, for example, 36 members of the wild colonies of Strathcona Park failed to survive the winter.

“Picking a number was done a long time ago,” Moehrenschlager (above) said. “It’s just so hard to know. One of the things about ecology in general and conservation in particular is that it is so unpredictable.”

Similar concerns have led the foundation to consider reversing a 2011 decision to stop seeding the Nanaimo Lakes region to observe how the population there reacted. Numbers thus far have been relatively stable, but remain vulnerable.

“They are small enough numbers that one predator moving in can devastate a colony,” Jackson said. “I suspect the population might not be enough.”

Unique to Vancouver Island, the marmot is native to the open spaces of the high country along the island’s central and south-central spine. The Marmot Recovery Foundation has nurtured growing populations in two pockets: Nanaimo Lakes, which basically comprises an area between Cowichan Lake and Mount Arrowsmith; and Strathcona, spanning both sides of Buttle Lake and including Mount Washington.

habitatPopulation numbers had declined almost to the point of no return in the ’90s before observers were fully aware of the severity of the situation. Even after two decades of study, the experts aren’t sure of the reasons. Increased predation and habitat change are certainly factors, but how and why is something they are still struggling to grasp, even as they continue to take steps to address the issue.

“I see it as analogous to emergency room medicine. You start treatment of some sort without fully understanding the situation. The alternative is basically letting your patient die on the table,” Moehrenschlager said.

In some ways, the Island’s marmot recovery effort may have become a victim of its own success. As the wild population has increased, the numbers in captivity have dwindled from 177 to 43. The main reason is reduced funding coming in from both government and private sources to maintain the captive breeders and transition their offspring.

Where there were once four facilities breeding marmots, there is now just Calgary and a smaller program at the Toronto Zoo. As a result, the foundation is looking to find more partners and new sources of cash.

“We are definitely trying to reinvigorate the captive breeding program,” Jackson said.

In addition to his duties in Calgary, Moehrenschlager serves as the chairman of the Reintroduction Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s premier anti-extinction organization. He said Canada, as a land rich in both resources and space, needs to use its assets to set a conservation example for the rest of the world. And he believes continued support for the Vancouver Island marmot makes a necessary statement.

“One of the things I think about is that if we as Canadians let uniquely Canadian species become extinct…we have no credibility or authority to say anything about the species of other countries.

“We need to be leaders.”

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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