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Wolves Can Help Save Adorable Olympic Marmots

Closeup of the face and front feet of a young Olympic Marmot playing under a storage container at Hurricane Ridge

According to a Center of Biological Diversity Press Release dated May 13, 2024 - The Olympic Marmot (Marmota olympus) should be given endangered status under the Endangered Species Act. The endemic Olympic Marmot is only found in the Olympic Mountains, which are largely protected by Olympic National Park in Washington State.

Hurricane Ridge is where most summer visitors to Olympic National Park can easily view Olympic Marmots lounging on the front porch of their burrows, eating, or playing. They are claustrophilic due to their subterranean habit. Marmots are curious and will even crawl into people's vehicles and hitch a ride down from Hurricane Ridge (check your vehicles and listen for strange noises). 

Olympic Marmots hibernate for most of the year and can start this process as early as September. The best time to view the Olympic Marmot is in June and July when there is the most active plant growth in the Northeastern areas of the park. Many wildflowers go to seed in August and as a result, Olympic Marmots start to slow down their activity. They need to conserve their resources as they may drop half their weight during hibernation. 

Near the concrete foundation of the former Hurricane Ridge lodge, there is a green storage container that doubles as a playground for young marmots. On a recent guided Hurricane Ridge wildlife tour on June 13, 2024, we observed four marmots playing peek-a-boo with a small crowd of onlookers. Young marmots were also "play" wrestling, where they stand up and on their hind legs and place their front paws on each other. They would tumble downhill, run around, continue wrestling, and were very entertaining to human onlookers. Marmots are playful and visible during the day, but they are prey to coyotes, and theoretically not for wolves.

Wolves were extirpated from the Olympic Peninsula in 1935, three years before the federal government created Olympic National Park. According to the National Park service, wolves would have mostly preyed on deer and elk. Wolves help to control other apex predators like Coyotes. Coyotes first arrived to the subalpine environments of Olympic National Park in the 1980s. Coyotes are generalist predators, meaning that they have been found to feed on mountain beaver, snowshoe hare, voles, deer, and marmots. If the Olympic Marmot went extinct, coyote populations might not even be impacted because as generalists and opportunistic predators, they can switch to other prey species.

Wolves are larger than coyotes and feed on larger prey like elk as well as deer. Wolves are dominant over coyotes and have the ability to influence their populations where the two species coexist. In Yellowstone National Park, in core wolf pack areas, coyote density dropped by fifty percent and coyote pack size decreased. 

In addition to wolves potentially directly affecting Olympic marmots through interference competition, wolves provide many other ecosystem services. Wolves have been shown to strengthen populations of elk and it is thought that they could decrease the prevalence of chronic wasting disease (CWD). CWD is a scary prion disease that has yet to be shown to infect humans. Wolf kills help to support scavenger species like Bald Eagle, Common Raven, Black Bear, and Coyote. Wolves also reduce the predation of other livestock predators like Coyote and Mountain Lion.

Another ecosystem service that might benefit Olympic Marmots are trophic cascade and vegetation impacts from wolves. Deer prefer to feed on certain vegetation and there is potential overlap with the vegetation that deer and marmots eat in the subalpine environment of Olympic National Park. Wolf presence will change prey (deer) behavior and these changes in herbivory might benefit marmots.

Wolves are returning to Washington State, in some areas more rapidly than others. We can only hope that Olympic Marmots are able to persist long enough to hopefully benefit from wolves returning to Olympic National Park.  

Two young Olympic Marmots wreste with each other in play but this behavior as adults helps determine social hierarchy