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Marmot preservation costs eagles their lives

 
Jody Patterson

Times Colonist
March 19, 2004

Golden eagle
GOLDEN EAGLE: One of the predator species targeted to save marmots.
 
Vancouver island Marmot
VANCOUVER ISLAND MARMOT: Minister defends steps to save species.
 

Six golden eagles, protected under federal and international law, were killed on provincial government orders in the winter of 2002-2003 on Nanaimo's Green Mountain, along with several wolves and cougars. Believing that the eagles were among the animals preying on a struggling colony of Vancouver Island marmots in the area, staff in the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection lured the birds with a deer carcass and then shot them.

No surprise that the ministry chose lethal means to control the threat to the marmots, says biologist Chris Darimont, a doctoral student who also works with the Raincoast Conservation Society. The government bureaucrat who presided over the execution orders -- Doug Janz, head of the Island's wildlife division -- is not only chairman of the province's marmot recovery team, but an outspoken advocate of predator culls for a variety of purposes.

Janz has regularly promoted wolf culls on the Island for more than 20 years -- initially to boost flagging deer populations so that hunters would have more to kill, and more recently to spare marmots. Several culls of wolves and cougars have occurred during his tenure, sometimes at the hands of government and sometimes through a boost in permits to hunt predators, as happened last winter.

Going after golden eagles is a relatively recent development, and one that came to public attention this week only because Victoria biology professor Neville Winchester happened to be in the market recently for dead birds for his class to study.

After hearing from wildlife officials that an eagle carcass was available, Winchester was stunned to find six in a government freezer. He subsequently learned they had been killed to reduce predation on the Island's marmots, whose numbers in the wild have dwindled to just 21.

There were marmots aplenty on the Island not so long ago, and they knew how to look after themselves. The chocolate-brown creatures with the white faces thrived here for centuries, living in large colonies that employed "sentinel" marmots to whistle a warning when predators approached.

But the population has been in sharp decline since the early 1980s, when the housecat-size marmots began abandoning their high-alpine habitat for freshly logged clearcuts that they mistook for alpine meadows.

Unlike meadows, however, clearcuts don't stay clear for long. The marmots have died off rapidly in their unexpectedly hostile new ranges. Despite more than a decade of frantic efforts to save the marmots, the species is now the most endangered in the world; some colonies now consist of no more than a single pair.

Reducing predators is vital if the marmots are to be saved from extinction, says biologist Rick Page, scientific adviser to B.C.'s marmot recovery team. But that doesn't have to mean killing eagles and wolves, he adds. He favours non-lethal options such as appointing human "marmot shepherds" to camp near at-risk colonies, or even just making a lot of noise from the tops of nearby mountains to scare off predators.

Janz, who wasn't returning calls Thursday, didn't tell other members of the province's marmot recovery program that eagles were going to be culled, says Page. The non-profit foundation that raises funds for marmot programs has been denying rumours about the cull for months, and is unhappy to find out they were true.

"The government ultimately has responsibility for the marmots, and any other endangered species," the biologist acknowledges. "But we feel we should have at least been asked for our advice. There had been a discussion about predators around that time, but no mention of killing eagles."

While Water, Land and Air Protection Minister Bill Barisoff asserts that he's a "firm believer in letting Mother Nature take care of things," he says the eagle cull was presumably thought to be the best solution at the time. All the ministry's wildlife decisions are "science-based," says Barisoff, although he didn't know what specific factors the government considered before ordering the eagles killed.

The minister doesn't think Janz's dual role puts him in a position of conflict, but notes that it must have been very difficult for the chairman of the marmot recovery team to watch as the fruits of his labour were "destroyed by eagles and wolves." Asked if he'd be prepared to see more eagles killed for the sake of the marmots, Barisoff declined comment, saying, "There isn't a right answer to that kind of question."

The worst of it is that killing predators doesn't protect marmot colonies, says Darimont. Animals that prey regularly on the same colony are typically "dispersers" -- loners, essentially. And new loners quickly move in to take over the territory when a predator is killed off, sometimes within weeks.

"This species-versus-species thing that the ministry is doing simply doesn't work," says Darimont. "What's going on here is going to be looked at in time as one of the greatest wildlife management follies in Canada, if not the world."

 

© Copyright 2004 Times Colonist (Victoria)
reprinted with permission

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