Citizen Science

Celebrate Groundhog Day: Embark on a Marmot-Thon

"Groundhog-Standing2" by Marumari at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Punxsutawney Phil spends his year living in comfy digs in the town’s library. He has one challenge only: look for his shadow each year.

Here’s a tougher challenge: spot all six species of North American marmot. (Yes, the groundhog is a marmot).

While groundhogs may be ubiquitous in parts of the country, seeing Phil’s relatives will take you to beautiful national parks and remote mountain ranges.

Hoary marmots are at home in alpine habitats. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Hoary marmots are at home in alpine habitats. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Canadian biologist and mammal enthusiast David Robichaud created what he calls the “Marmot-Thon”: seeing all six species of North American marmots in one year. He did this as a conservation fundraising endeavor, with supporters pledging a donation for each species spotted.

After spending three trips to see the rare Vancouver Island marmot, Robichaud realized he had spent more on rental cars than conservation. He sent a donation to the Marmot Recovery Foundation, an organization that has a captive breeding and reintroduction program for the rare species.

“I started thinking about how wildlife viewing could be used for the benefit of the wildlife,” he says. “That’s when I came up with the idea for the Marmothon.”

He successfully completed the task in one summer, raising more than $5000 for the Marmot Recovery Foundation. (Check out Robichaud’s digital scrapbook for a complete account of his marmot-spotting journey).

Due to hibernation patterns, the window for seeing them is short, and the travel distances can be long. Are you up for a Marmot-Thon Challenge?

What you’ll need:

Good binoculars. Please observe these critters from a distance, especially the rare species.

Hiking shoes. Unlike the groundhog, most marmots are found in rugged country like alpine slopes and canyons.

Field guides. Bring your favorite mammal guide, or better yet, the Squirrels of North America, which covers all the marmots in detail.

National Parks Pass. The U.S. park system offers some of the best marmot viewing (and conservation) on the continent.

Mammalwatching.com. It’s the definitive source (and forum) for marmot mania and all manner of other crazy mammal expeditions.

Ready to begin? Let’s meet the marmots you’ll be seeking.

"Groundhog drinks from bird bath". Photo © Susan Sam, Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons
“Groundhog drinks from bird bath”. Photo © Susan Sam, Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons

Groundhog (or Woodchuck)

Let’s start with the easy one. You know, the marmot with its own holiday. And tongue twister. And cider line.

Difficulty: Very easy

Range & Habitat: The groundhog is common in the eastern and midwestern United States, but can be found as far west and north as Alaska. It will use a variety of habitats including prairie, woodland and farm fields.

Ecological Tidbit: Marmots are well known as burrow diggers and dwellers. But the groundhog can also climb trees to escape predators if necessary.

Conservation: Highly adaptable to human-altered environments, the groundhog may actually be more common now than ever. They’re more likely to be considered a nuisance than a conservation concern.

Where to go: There are many parks and fields with woodchucks in the eastern United States. You could do worse than check out a field near Phil’s home in Pennsylvania: the Keystone State has lots of woodchucks.

A yellow-bellied marmot with young. Photo: © Elinor Osborn
A yellow-bellied marmot with young. Photo: © Elinor Osborn

Yellow-Bellied Marmot

This may be the only marmot you could actually see on Groundhog Day (well, at least without a human chauffeur). In high desert canyons, the “rockchuck” is often out sunning itself on warm February days.

Difficulty: Easy. But remember that yellow-bellied marmots spend a lot of the year in torpor, especially in the warm desert.

Range & Habitat: The yellow-bellied marmot is a common mammal of the Rocky Mountain West, from sagebrush to Rocky Mountain slopes. It is generally always found near canyons, mountain slopes or other rocky features.

Ecological Tidbit: While yellow-bellied marmots may be out early, they also return to hibernation as early as June – particularly in high desert canyons. They spend 80 percent of their lives below ground, including 60 percent of the year in hibernation.

Conservation: This marmot is common throughout its range.

Where to go: The Jenny Lake area of Grand Teton National Park is a popular spot. (Note that the yellow-bellied marmots here can be much darker in color). Canyons in Yellowstone National Park are also worth checking. In the desert, visit Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument or the Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve.

Hoary marmot. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Hoary marmot. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Hoary Marmot

Where mountain goats roam, you’ll find this grizzled, silvery marmot living in highly social colonies.

Difficulty: Easy. The hoary marmot is highly visible in a number of famous national parks.

Range & Habitat: This grizzled, silvery marmot is found in alpine habitats above the treeline in the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, western Canada and Alaska.

Ecological Tidbit: Pikas, another charismatic alpine dweller, have been observed collecting hoary marmot feces and storing them with grasses they collect. The feces help provide nutrients in the winter, as pikas don’t hibernate.

Conservation: Its populations appear stable, but its need for alpine habitat puts hoary marmots at risk from climate change.

Where to go: They’re easy to see at Glacier National Park, particularly the Logan Pass area. But you may also want to consider Mt. Rainier or Denali national parks, which would possibly allow you to look for other, rarer marmot species on the same trip.

Olympic marmot. Photo: © Coke Smith, cokesmithphototravel.com
Olympic marmot. Photo: © Coke Smith, cokesmithphototravel.com

Olympic marmot

Seattle fourth and fifth graders campaigned successfully to make this marmot Washington’s official State Endemic Mammal – the only such designation in the country.

Difficulty: Moderate. They can be pretty easily seen if you know where to look, but it’s dependent on weather.

Range & Habitat: The Olympic marmot is found only on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. About 90 percent of the population is in Olympic National Park.

Ecological Tidbit: Olympic marmots are ill-adapted to coyotes, an increasing presence in the Olympic Peninsula. Studies indicate that coyotes may be behind increased mortality of breeding females.

Conservation: In addition to the aforementioned coyote problems, Olympic marmots are vulnerable to climate change. Their population has been in decline, prompting research, citizen science and conservation measures.

Where to go: Hurricane Ridge and alpine meadows along Obstruction Point Road in the national park are favorite spots for serious mammal enthusiasts.

Vancouver Island marmot. Photo: Coke Smith, cokesmithphototravel.com
Vancouver Island marmot. Photo: Coke Smith, cokesmithphototravel.com

Vancouver Island Marmot

One of the world’s rarest mammals, the Vancouver Island marmot has been the subject of an extensive captive breeding and reintroduction program by the Marmot Recovery Foundation.

Difficulty: High. They are rare and in very specific locales on the island. It took Robichaud three trips to see one.

Range & Habitat: This marmot is found only on Vancouver Island.

Ecological Tidbit: Little is known of how the marmot arrived on Vancouver Island, but bones found in caves have been carbon dated to 9,400 years. Recently, landscape changes have made the marmots vulnerable to predation, leading to the decline.

Conservation: In 2002, only 21 individuals existed in the wild. Fortunately, a captive breeding effort had already begun in 1997, so conservationists began reintroducing marmots. Today, several hundred marmots are reintroduced each year, and the conservation program has been having some success. The goal is to have 400 – 600 wild marmots living in three metapopulations.

Where to go: The easiest spot may be the Mount Washington Alpine Resort, where summer ski lifts take you into marmot country. Other suggestions are regularly made on the Mammal Watching web site and blog, a treasure trove for anyone searching strange critters worldwide.

Alaska marmot. Photo: © David Robichaud
Alaska marmot. Photo: © David Robichaud

Alaska Marmot

Little is known about the Alaska marmot, because researchers have a difficult time locating them. This may suggest what you’re up against if you are to complete the Marmot-Thon.

Difficulty: Very high. They’re generally only on remote mountain slopes, and not easy to find even there. Robichaud notes: “I would think that anyone who can survive in the Alaska wilderness (people that know how to deal with bears, and/or handle a gun) would be able to access the Alaska marmots.” In other words: be prepared.

Range & Habitat: Found on the rocky scree of Alaska’s Brooks Range, this is a true wilderness critter. According to Robichaud, one researcher has also found populations farther south, so the full extent of their range is still being worked out.

Ecological Tidbit: While the hoary marmot is also found in Alaska, the Alaska marmot is actually more closely related to Asian marmot species than its North American neighbors.

Conservation: Many conservationists believe it to be highly intolerant of human disturbance. Fortunately, right now that’s not a major concern as it is found in remote wilderness areas.

Where to go: Some reports recommend the Dalton Highway, particularly on rocky slopes near Atigun Pass. This may be easier to access, but even here it seems it can be tricky to get a decent view. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve is another good, if difficult, choice.

Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

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8 comments

  1. Seems like a great plan. Let’s travel all around the continent within one year, causing a crazy amount of carbon emissions, plus all the other environmental impacts from travel, potentially doing more damage to the habitat of marmots (and all sorts of other species) than the good that is done from the fundraising.
    Being a little harsh here, but seriously, shouldn’t this contradiction at least be considered in a piece like this? I am aware that seeing nature sometimes clashes with protecting it, but a slight attempt at moderation might be a good idea. Like maybe spending some quality time with one species of marmot, really getting to know its habitat, practicing low impact tourism there, maybe even helping out with some habitat restoration. Then over some years one could still see all the marmots without racing around the country.

  2. What a fun way to use the news to educate people. Educational and entertaining always wins!

  3. Han. I am shocked and dismayed by your post. This is what you get out of a post like this? It is both illogical and incredibly off base.

  4. I was coming home from the store Sunday, July 3rd, around 12:20 p.m., and saw a strange animal along a creek ditch 2 miles from my home. It looked like a solid dark brown small wolverine. When I looked it up online, to my surprise, ALL of the pictures I saw of the animal said it had to be a VANCOUVER ISLAND MARMOT! EXACTLY like the one pictured in this article! So—-what in the world is one of these rare and endangered animals doing in the desert area of Southwest Idaho near the Simplot potato plant along the Idaho State Highway 19 between Caldwell and Greenleaf, Idaho?!! It was NOT a beaver, muskrat, woodchuck or yellow-bellied marmot as I know what they all look like. What a stunning find!

    1. Sadly, I believe this animal was run over recently. I saw a fresh kill in the same area about 9 days ago with the same coloring. Unfortunately, I was unable to stop at the time to be absolutely certain it was the same animal I had seen earlier.

  5. I’ve seen a great number of marmots in the Reno Nevada area. They like to populate around golf courses there and can be seen in June. I took some pictures years ago, but cannot locate them to identify the type. Any idea what they are?

    1. Hi Chuck, Thank you for your interest! I suggest posting the photos to iNaturalist. The community there is great at identifying nature photos.