Environmentalists seek protections for marmots on Olympic Peninsula

Olympic marmots can spend up to eight months a year hibernating, emerging when the weather warms to forage for food, fatten up, and otherwise go about their business.

If you’ve traveled in the alpine terrain of western Washington’s Olympic Mountains, you may have spotted them loafing, sauntering along, or standing alert on their hind legs surveying their surroundings. The brownish, furry, burrow-dwelling creatures — technically large members of the squirrel family — are the only marmots found on the Olympic Peninsula.

In 2009, the Legislature designated them as the state’s official endemic mammal.

But environmentalists say the species is in trouble, with around 2,000 to 4,000 of the animals believed to be left after a sharp population decline from the 1990s to mid-2000s.

With this in mind, the Center for Biological Diversity last week petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant the marmots, which can grow to around 32 inches long and weigh up to 20 pounds, new protections under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“If we don’t protect them, they could disappear,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the group, said in a statement.

The center is asking the feds to consider classifying the animals as either “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act or to assign them the more protective “endangered” status.

Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is not a party to the petition, ranks the species’ sensitivity to climate change as “moderate-high,” with declining snowpack and treelines creeping higher into the mountains considered key risk factors.

A big problem for the marmots seems to be coyotes. Warmer winters and less snow are thought to make it easier for coyotes to move into higher elevations where the marmots live.

The Center for Biological Diversity, in a press release, said in one study coyotes accounted for 85% of all documented marmot predation.

Historically, coyotes aren’t known to have roamed the higher elevations of the Olympics.

If wolves — hunted to extinction in the Olympics by the 1930s — were returned to the region, the Center for Biological Diversity said the coyotes would have a predator of their own, possibly boosting the odds of survival for the marmots. The marmots prefer tender, flowering plants as food but will eat roots and gnaw trees when hungry, according to the National Park Service.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days from the filing to consider the center’s request to provide Endangered Species Act protections for the marmots.

Bill Lucia writes for the Washington State Standard, an independent, nonprofit news organization that produces original reporting on policy and politics.