LOCAL ANIMAL - HOARY MARMOT
Whistler Mountain and the town are named for the hoary marmot, which inhabits high alpine regions in the Coast Mountains. The marmots make a distinctive whistling sound and hence are sometimes called “whistling” marmots or simply “whistlers.” One of six species of marmots in North America, hoary marmots are quite common in the mountains of southwestern British Columbia. Not much is known about their historic populations in the Whistler area, but anecdotal information suggests that their numbers have waxed and waned since humans first became regular visitors to the alpine terrain they inhabit, said local ecologist Bob Brett, who has studied their habits and habitat since the 1980s.
Brett said human disturbance is just one of many factors that may well affect hoary marmots’ ability to survive from one year, and decade, to the next. “We know they do well in certain environments and they do acclimate to humans, but the question is, ‘How much disturbance can they take?’”
Hoary marmots hibernate up to seven months a year, so one would think that when they’re out of their burrows, they would mostly be busy gathering food to help them survive the long winter’s nap. However, hikers who encounter them often see them out sunning themselves on a rock. Brett theorizes that like reptiles such as lizards, standing almost motionless in the sun helps the marmots gather solar energy that they need, along with food, to survive the winter.
“Marmots bask — and I’m not even sure why they bask,” he said, “but the less you can disturb them, the better. Every time you make them move, that reduces the benefit that they get from basking.” If you see marmots when out hiking, use a zoom lens for photos and try to avoid approaching them too closely, Brett advised.
Climate change is an undeniable cause of the reduced alpine terrain, and over time may lead to a loss of suitable habitat for hoary marmots, causing their numbers to decline, Brett said. “I just love that we have wildlife on the hills and if they’re still there in 30, 40 or 50 years, that would be a really good thing,” he said. “It would be a very poor Whistler if, in the future, we didn’t have the species that our town was named after.”