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Watching Over Washington’s Whistle Pig

Citizen scientists are bolstering our understanding of the Olympic Peninsula's endemic marmot

In July 1997, in the high country of Olympic National Park in Washington State, Nina Pitts and Steve Zenovic watched two plump, furry marmots sliding down a snowfield.

“They slid fast on their bellies down the steep slope,” recalls Pitts. “When they got to the bottom, they scrambled up to do it again. We rolled a snowball or two down to them, and they chased those too.”

photo of Olympic marmotphoto by Kelsie Donleycott Roughly 90 percent of Olympic marmot habitat lies within Olympic National Park. Citizen scientists have observed that marmot populations are disappearing from the southern reaches of the park. 

Pitts, a library supervisor at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, WA, and Zenovic, her husband and an engineer, have been hiking and backpacking in the national park since 1976. They have appreciated seeing the marmots over the years. “They have often provided us with a welcome distraction from hiking up steep switchbacks,” she says. “In later years, when we didn’t see their burrows where we’d seen them before, we wondered where the animals had gone.”

Since 2010, the couple has joined more than 80 other volunteers each summer to participate in a marmot citizen-science monitoring program. The goal is to document the presence of marmots in select areas throughout the species’ range, 90 percent of which is in the national park with the remainder in the surrounding national forest. For six to eight months each year, Olympic marmots, large, burrowing members of the squirrel family with small ears and big, stubby muzzles, go into a state of deep hibernation. During this time, each animal’s body temperature and heart rate drop so that it can conserve energy during the seasons when food is unavailable. In the spring, the animals emerge from their winter sleep. As the snow melts and the lupine and glacier lilies begin to bloom, the marmots awake and begin to leave their burrows. They are easily visible, feeding in the alpine meadows of the Olympic Mountains, breathtaking landscapes that people love to visit. Citizen scientists like Pitts and Zenovic are ready each year when the marmots emerge, eager to connect more deeply with the park and its residents, and to also give back in the process.

*

In 2009, one year before the monitoring program began, the Olympic marmot, affectionately known as the “whistle pig” for its high-pitched alarm calls, was designated Washington’s State endemic mammal. The proposal for this distinction came from elementary school students in Seattle. Their hope: to bring attention to a declining species found only on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. This recognition couldn’t have come at a better time.

Beginning in the 1990s, rangers and Olympic National Park visitors began noticing an absence of marmots from historically occupied areas. The same year Zenovic and Pitts observed the sledding marmots, Patti Happe, chief wildlife biologist for the park, attended a public meeting on wolf reintroduction. During a break, a long-time park visitor approached her to talk about marmots. He had spent a lot of time in the high country and had observed that the animals seemed to be disappearing from the southeast and southwest parts of the park.

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“The man was a credible observer,” Happe says, “and I grew concerned right after I talked to him. When the Vancouver Island marmot population started crashing in the late 1990s, these concerns were elevated.”

Approximately 2.6 million years ago, the Olympic marmot diverged from other marmot species in Washington and British Columbia and began to evolve in isolation on the Peninsula. The nearby Vancouver Island marmot population is only 200 kilometers to the north, but it is separated from the Olympic Mountains by a vast waterway, the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Because of this geographic isolation, which made natural recruitment unlikely, investigating the status of the Olympic marmots became a high priority in the park’s 1998 resource management plan.

*

In the early 2000s, Sue Griffin was a student at the University of Montana. “I had just finished my undergraduate degree,” she says, “and was becoming quite interested in the effects of climate change on high-elevation species.”

While working in western Montana and researching a subspecies of sparrow that breeds in krummholz, the stunted, twisted trees that grow at timberline, Griffin had had the opportunity to watch marmots. Curious as to how this mountaintop-dwelling rodent might be affected by the reduced size and connectivity of habitat patches, she began formulating questions on this topic, as well as an approach to answering them. Dr. Scott Mills, Griffin’s advisor and a population biologist at the University of Montana, had been an employee at Olympic National Park many years before. He contacted Happe to see how the university could help gather data on marmots. In addition to gaining access to research that would turn into a Ph.D. dissertation for Griffin, Happe was also interested in a long-term monitoring program.

“From 1998 to 2002, I was doing a lot of hands-on work with Roosevelt elk and black bears,” Happe explains. “At the same time, I was also getting a lot of questions from the public about volunteering in the park. The projects with bears and elk weren’t good fits for volunteers, however, marmots, which are easy to see and live in places people love to visit, would be a good fit if we could get robust and reliable data. Early on I asked Scott [Mills] for help designing a monitoring program that could be done by volunteers.”  

In 2002, Griffin began using different methods to assess the park’s marmot population as part of her Ph.D. thesis. These included making visual observations of marmots and marmot burrows at sites the animals were known to have occupied historically, surveying high-elevation meadows throughout the park for the rodents, and intensively studying three different groups of animals using radio telemetry to estimate birth, death, and movement rates, and population trends over four to five years. The results from these efforts were sobering.

Of the 25 historic colonies Griffin monitored between 2002 and 2006, 60 percent were not occupied, including three that went extinct during the study. No recolonizations were detected, and no new areas were colonized by marmots. Additionally, large regional differences became clear, with a higher proportion of abandoned sites in the southwest and southeast portions of the park. Finally, of 101 animals that Griffin had marked, 33 died during the study and another 11 disappeared, that is, neither their bodies nor transmitters were ever found. At least one-third of these confirmed and presumed mortalities were due to predation by coyotes.

After analyzing the data, Griffin concluded that the spatial patterns of Olympic marmot site extinctions were not like the long-term patterns observed in other, apparently stable marmot populations. For example, in Colorado, yellow-bellied marmot populations, studied in the early 2000s, had larger colonies that were able to supply animals to reoccupy sites that became vacant. By contrast, Olympic marmot sites were “winking out” regardless of colony size or proximity to other sites. Griffin also documented that Olympic marmots, particularly females, appeared to have limited dispersal capability, and that mortality rates for females closely resembled those of the declining Vancouver Island marmot.

Griffin’s dissertation research showed statistically what a decade before people had been observing anecdotally: the Olympic marmot was disappearing from certain locations in the national park. While Griffin finished her degree, Julia Witczuk, another graduate student, began working with Happe to design a citizen-based monitoring program with the goal of determining changes in marmot colony occupancy over time. After Witczuk’s University of Montana dissertation committee reviewed the plan to make sure it had scientific rigor, Happe hired Griffin to turn the thesis project into an implementable program. 

“She organized a pilot year in 2009,” says Happe, “and I took over for the first full season of surveys in 2010.”

*

In the spring of 2010, Pitts and Zenovic saw the request for volunteers for the marmot monitoring program in the Port Angeles daily newspaper. The opportunity to find out more about marmots, as well as contribute to the ongoing research, appealed to them. They have since participated every year of the program, preferring to survey a new place each season, though they will also go wherever the park needs them most. Kelsie Donleycott, a web/graphic designer from Bremerton, Washington, has also participated in the program since the beginning. She appreciates getting to know new places and loves the park landscapes, but the best part, she says, is being able to do the surveys with her father, Ken. The Donleycotts’ perseverance has paid off: after not seeing a single marmot for the first five seasons, during their sixth season they visited Upper Grand Valley, 14 miles south of Port Angeles, where they saw several animals. “It’s a lovely place,” Donleycott says, “and it’s amazing how much faster surveying goes once you find a marmot!”

The citizen science monitoring program is designed to document whether marmots are present in a given area, not to count their actual numbers. Volunteers systematically walk survey areas, or use binoculars to scan steeper slopes, looking for marmots. If a marmot is observed, the area is classified as “occupied” and the survey is done. If no marmots are spotted, then a more thorough investigation of the area is completed to look for other evidence of the animals. Trampled vegetation; fresh digging, flies, marmot feces, and clipped and compacted vegetation around burrow entrances; and trails between burrows are all indications of marmot presence. If burrows are found without any of these indicators, then the area is classified as “abandoned.” Finally, if there is nothing to show marmots are, or have been, living at a site, then the area is given a “no sign” designation.

photo of citizen scientistsphoto by Betsy Howell Pattie Happe (left) surveys for marmots with volunteers. In addition to looking for marmots themselves, the team looks for signs of their presence, including compacted vegetation around burrow entrances.

Happe puts on a mandatory, day-long training for the marmot volunteers every August. Instruction begins in the classroom in Port Angeles, where she gives an overview of marmot biology and history. Copies of the data form are provided to volunteers, as well as details on the kind of information to record besides the indicators of marmot presence, which include: weather conditions, start/end times of survey, and other wildlife observed. After lunch, the class continues at Hurricane Hill, an easy-to-get-to part of the park where marmots are observed regularly. Happe shows everyone how to use a GPS device to record burrow locations and survey routes.

It is not uncommon to see young marmots during the training at Hurricane Hill. Their smaller size and gray fur stand out amid the late-summer grasses and in contrast to that of the browner adults. On a sunny, warm day there can be much marmot activity: the young and adults scampering from burrow to burrow, some individuals whistling, others sitting atop rocks or on the porches of their burrows, watching the people, who are watching them, below.

*

Between 2010 and 2015, an average of 87 volunteers worked each year gathering data on marmots at 45 sites. Some areas involve day-trips, others week-long backpack adventures. Steve and Jackie Thompson, a retired construction worker and a retired teacher, respectively, live in Redmond, WA, just east of Seattle. Jackie heard about the program on the local NPR radio station. “We thought doing this would be a fun way to combine our love of hiking and backpacking with a real purpose,” she says. The Thompsons have enjoyed returning to the same site every year. They say that Royal Basin, at the headwaters of the Dungeness River in the northeast part of the park, has become an old friend.

“We like to see the changes that have occurred,” explains Steve, “as the snow pack has varied, the vegetation has responded, and the marmot activity has adapted. We were told that marmots didn’t travel long distances, but one evening we observed a marmot run from our side of the tarn at Upper Royal Basin, around the tarn, and up the hill to another survey unit.”

Vivian Bedford and Aeryk Bjork, yoga instructors from Olympia, WA, also appreciate seeing the changes that occur over time. “It’s dramatic to witness how a poor winter can lead to a poor berry season,” says Bedford, “which then results in our not seeing wildlife during the survey. We wouldn’t know the impacts of weather as intimately if we went to different places. This way, we are starting to know the range of ‘normal.’” 

In addition to recording marmot sightings, volunteers also document other wildlife, including coyotes, the species Griffin’s research showed to be the marmots’ dominant predator. The Donleycotts and Thompsons have not observed coyotes during their marmot surveys. Neither have Zenovic and Pitts, however they have noticed their scats on trails, and Bedford and Bjork heard them for the first time in 2017 during their survey. By contrast, Griffin recalls seeing the predators frequently. “On many occasions,” she says, “my crew and I watched a coyote attempting to stalk marmots. While I never witnessed a predation, members of my crew did. In the spring, when we monitored sites known to be occupied by hibernating marmots, I was struck by tracks of coyotes ‘trap-lining’ the snow-covered burrows. The coyotes clearly remembered the precise location of every hibernaculum, even without the help of radio telemetry.”

Coyotes are a common, visible presence on the Olympic Peninsula. They are regularly observed in the national park and national forest, as well as in the surrounding towns and cities. But it wasn’t always this way. Prior to the twentieth century, these small canines did not live on the Peninsula due to the presence of wolves. While wolves may have occasional preyed upon marmots, they generally hunt larger animals, such as deer and elk, in areas below the treeline and away from marmot habitat. However, when the last wolf on the Peninsula was killed in the 1920s, an opportunity appeared for the extremely adaptable coyotes, for whom a 15-pound marmot makes a perfect meal. Still, their presence at the highest elevations was less common until just recently. With changes in the climate causing lower snowpacks some years in the Olympics, coyotes can easily move into alpine landscapes inhabited by marmots. Additionally, as Griffin points out in her dissertation, since Olympic marmots have evolved with little predation pressure from other carnivores, they may be predisposed to population declines in the presence of an effective mammalian predator.

*

Olympic marmots have been observed and studied in the national park since the late 1950s, and four different monitoring efforts occurred between 1957 and 1989. With Griffin’s work in the early 2000s and the citizen-science effort beginning in 2010, there is a good understanding of population changes that have taken place in the park in the last 60 years.

Across the marmot’s range, occupancy has remained relatively stable, though there are regional differences, as shown by Griffin’s research and the observations by the citizen scientists, with the south part of the park having a far lower percentage of recent marmot signs than the north part. Though they have limited dispersal capabilities, marmots have been documented during the citizen-science surveys at eight of thirteen sites that Griffin had found to be extinct during her research. Additionally, none of Griffin’s occupied areas have since become unoccupied. Finally, changes in snowpack, even with coyote presence, don’t appear to directly relate to changes in marmot occupancy. However, snow levels had been less variable until 2015 when there was almost no snow that winter in the high country.

This news is encouraging, and yet the stressors on Olympic marmot populations remain. Snow level, as a mechanism for preventing coyote pressure when marmots first emerge from hibernation, as well as for facilitating the growth of quality forage, must be considered in future analyses. Habitat changes, including increasing conifer encroachment on meadows as the climate warms, will affect marmots in the coming years. And range contraction, particularly in the south part of the park, must be further investigated to understand the potential isolation of some colonies. As far as addressing possible stressors on the marmots with management actions, the park is starting to explore using controlled burning to maintain meadow habitats and reduce conifer encroachment. And the need for wolves is apparent too.

“I can’t do anything about coyotes,” says Happe, referring to the national park policy of letting natural processes unfold without human interference, “but wolves can.”

*

After a break to analyze data in 2016, Happe again gathered the citizen scientists for the 2017 season. The surveys will continue in 2018 as well. “I plan to keep the program going long-term,” says Happe, “with a year off every five years or so to analyze the information.” Data collected by everyone participating in the project, whether formally trained researchers or citizen science volunteers, must pass tests of quality and accuracy. An examination of the data gathered by the volunteers appears to allow for robust estimates of occupancy for marmots, welcome news for Happe, as well as the volunteers. Pitts, Zenovic, the Thompsons, the Donleycotts, and Bedford and Bjork, all plan to keep surveying for the whistle pig in the years to come. They agree that the species, apart from being endemic, is important ecologically for the park, and that it serves as a bell weather for climate change.

“There are so many things we don’t understand about how all the pieces of an ecosystem enhance each other, that the arrogance of undervaluing any part is unwise,” says Jackie Thompson. Bedford agrees, adding, “Individuals need to begin taking responsibility as members of the planet. We need to learn about and care for the environment.”

There remain many questions about how the Olympic marmots are faring, and being able to contribute to a greater understanding of the status of Olympic marmots brings the volunteers back year after year. They come from different places, different backgrounds, and have, or have had, very different careers. Yet, what all share are observant natures and curiosity about how species and ecosystems work to support life on earth. For all the many ways that national parks can seem frozen in time with seemingly unchanging habitats, they really are dynamic and ever shifting. The changes can be subtle, even imperceptible to the casual visitor. Only when people spend more time in nature and are paying close attention do those shifts in habitats or presence of species become clearer. In an era of changing climate and mounting pressures on the environment, paying attention to those subtle changes is more important than ever.           

Betsy L. Howell
Betsy L. Howell is a wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service. Her previous articles on spotted owls, ensatina salamanders, and wildfire have appeared in American Forests.

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