Marmot monitoring in Olympic National Park

Over this past week we spent three days in our “back yard,” participating as volunteers in Olympic National Park’s marmot monitoring program.

NOTE: All of the marmot photos below were taken with a zoom lens. Although marmots are not particularly bothered by the presence of humans, I would never get so close to a wild animal in its natural environment.

Wouldn’t you want to spend as much time as possible with these cute little guys?

The Olympic Marmot is endemic to the Olympic Peninsula; 90% of the Olympic Marmot population lives within the boundaries of the Park.

Historically, a stable population of 2,000 or more Olympic Marmots existed, but about ten years ago anecdotal reports began to indicate that the population was in rapid decline. By the year 2006 the estimated population was only 1,000. The probable cause of this decline is predation by coyotes, which are not native to the area. Although the population is currently rebounding, the marmot’s lifecycle (slow reproductive rate, long hibernation time, limited mobility within its range) and other factors including climate change cause concern for the long-term viability of this unique species.

In 2010, Park biologists began a citizen marmot monitoring volunteer program. The idea is to survey areas within the Park that are known or likely sites of marmot habitat. The program is now in its fourth year. CFL and I volunteered to participate this year and were thrilled to be selected!

We began with a morning of classroom training followed by an afternoon in the field. This video taken at a prior year’s training will give you an idea of what is involved.

The survey method is straightforward:

  1. Hike to an area (“unit”) delineated on the map
  2. Use a GPS device to confirm that you’ve arrived at the right location
  3. Look for marmots within the boundaries of that unit
  4. If you see a marmot
    1. Hike to its location and mark it as a waypoint on the GPS
    2. Count all the adult and juvenile marmots you can see at any one time
    3. On your data sheet, enter the marmot count and mark the unit as “occupied”
    4. You’re done — move on to the next unit.
  5. If you don’t see a marmot
    1. Hike around within the unit looking for marmot burrows
    2. Mark any burrows on the GPS
    3. Determine (based on fresh dirt, feces, etc.) whether the burrow is occupied or abandoned
    4. Mark the unit as “occupied” or “abandoned”
    5. Move on to the next unit.
  6. Keep looking for burrows until you’ve surveyed the entire area
    1. If no burrows, mark the unit as “no sign”
    2. Move on to the next unit.

As first-year volunteers with (in my case) no overnight backpacking experience, we requested and were assigned to a front-country area. The most remote of our units was only about three miles from the trailhead.

Hiking out to each unit was the easy part! Once there, we left the trail and scrambled across meadows. These sub-alpine meadows are extremely fragile, and we would normally never go off-trail — but this time we were doing it in our official volunteer T shirts. We felt like kids getting away with something!

In many places the meadows are steeply sloped, and getting around the unit can be difficult. The next photo shows a typical occupied burrow. Note the freshly-dug dirt as well as the dirt on top of the rock (left behind by sun-bathing marmots). To get here, we had to hike for some distance sideways across the slope. It’s a good workout for toes, ankles, knees, and hips!

Accesses to and/or within couple of our units were so steep that we didn’t attempt to hike into them — but we didn’t need to, because we could survey them from above with binoculars.

There are (at least) three marmots in this photo. Can you spot them all?

The pups are grayish in color.

Adults have two-layer coats, brown to yellow-brown with a darker undercoat. Many of them are in the process of molting right now.

This big guy is sporting an ear tag. We’re hoping that the Park biologist can identify him or her from our photos and tell us more about him.

He or she was very patient with us while I took numerous photos in this stunning setting.

However, he finally expressed his displeasure by showing us his incisors, so we moved on and let him enjoy the rest of his day in peace.

To our surprise, we didn’t see a single black bear or mountain goat during our three days of off-trail excursions. We did see a golden eagle (a first for me), lots of deer, and some other interesting birds.

I believe this is a female sooty grouse (formerly known as a blue grouse). She had at least three chicks with her, but they were impossible to find through the camera viewfinder in the tall grass.

These are horned larks.

Sadly, the wildflower season is pretty much over, but we did see some beautiful specimens. This is pearly everlasting.

This is red columbine.

I have no idea what this gorgeous flower is, but we saw it only in a few places where there was loose shale.

All told, we hiked about 15 miles over the three days, at least a third of which was off-trail. We saw marmots and/or marmot burrows in 12 of our 14 units. We were very happy citizen scientists! We will certainly volunteer to do it again next year — maybe even venture into one of the back country areas. All in the name of research!

4 responses to “Marmot monitoring in Olympic National Park

  1. Hi there! What spectacular photos! About how many marmots did you see in total? I’ve yet to see one in person. Do you have any advice for me?

    • Hi Amy — thanks for finding my blog! The photos in yours are gorgeous as well.

      I didn’t keep a running total of all the marmots we saw. I think the most at one moment in time was six, but we did see multiple marmots in most of the units that we surveyed.

      The specific area that we monitored was Hurricane Hill (just past Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park). It’s a very safe bet that if you go there, you will see Olympic Marmots. The best time of day is before 11:00 AM or after 4:00 PM. However, within the next couple of weeks they will start winding down toward hibernation. I doubt you’d see any a month from now.

      I guess over in Rainier you’d see hoary marmots, but I can’t tell you anything about them. Maybe you can go there and educate me!

  2. How fabulous! I love the term “citizen scientists,” too. What an important program. Do you know how long coyotes have been introduced into that region? I can’t quite imagine where they came from, which may be a really uninformed question. How does any species travel? 🙂 I’ve never seen a marmot and I do think they’re delightful. Your photographs are just gorgeous and I am sure you just relished the being outdoors and off the trail! Olympic National Park is a treasure, I’m sure!

    • Hi Debra! I had to do a little research to answer your question about coyotes — thanks for that opportunity!

      Basically, coyotes are an enormously successful species, moving in wherever wolves have been exterminated or other habitat changes (like suburban development) have occurred. The last of the wolves on the Olympic Peninsula were hunted down and killed in the early 20th century. Coyotes arrived soon after that, and moved up into the high country around the 1980s. The marmot population began to decline soon after that. The loss of wolves has also allowed the deer and elk population to expand (coyotes can’t keep up with that), which has led to stream and forest degradation from overgrazing.

      I’m sure you are aware of wolf reintroduction programs in Yellowstone and elsewhere. It’s been suggested that we reintroduce wolves here, but there is still a lot of local resistance to that idea. Meanwhile wolves are finding their own way back to eastern Washington, mostly coming down from Canada I believe. Like coyotes, wolves are very mobile and will move into new ranges if they have the opportunity. However, for wolves to make it back to the Olympic Peninsula on their own, they would need to cross both the I-90 and I-5 corridors and travel through heavily populated areas. It’s perhaps doable but it will take a while.

      In contrast to highly mobile species, our Olympic Marmots (and other high-altitude species) have nowhere else to go. They are effectively isolated in “islands” of habitat. They become sitting ducks, as it were, for new opportunistic predators like coyotes.

      Nature isn’t always friendly, but it certainly is beautiful.

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