A hoary marmot living in Mount Rainier National Park now calls Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville home and made his public debut last week. The young marmot, estimated to be born in spring 2022, was fed human food and began aggressively begging for food from people in the national park.
According to Mount Rainier National Park officials, the animal, named Chestnut, had become a danger to himself and people.
“Food-conditioned animals will beg aggressively for food and may bite, causing serious injury and possible infection to people,” said Dr. Tara Chestnut, former wildlife ecologist for Mount Rainier National Park and for whom the marmot was named. “Feeding an animal can also potentially spread diseases among animals and people. In most cases, the only solution for food-conditioned animals is to remove them, which typically means humanely euthanizing them.”
When Chestnut observed the marmot’s behavior and determined its young age, she called Northwest Trek’s head veterinarian, Dr. Allison Case, to see if the animal might be a candidate to become an ambassador animal for the wildlife park, according to the press release. Animal ambassadors teach lessons to the visiting public about how to be good stewards of public lands, including the wildlife. If Chestnut the marmot had not been a good candidate, or if the wildlife park did not have the space for him, he would have been euthanized, according to the press release.
“Animals that are habituated to humans and become food-conditioned are often killed by traffic or euthanized for public safety,” Dr. Chestnut said in the press release. “We are fortunate that Northwest Trek can provide a great home for this marmot so he can live a full life. Most wild animals that become habituated to people are not so lucky.”
Dr. Case said everyone agreed Chestnut the marmot would provide an “incredible learning opportunity” for the public.
“This marmot will be a wonderful ambassador for his wild counterparts and encourage our guests to respect and appreciate wildlife from a distance when visiting our parks and other natural areas,” she said.
Staff named the marmot Chestnut after Dr. Chestnut because Northwest Trek staff and Dr. Chestnut have worked closely for years on conservation projects, including restoring fishers to Washington’s Cascade Mountain Range.
Chestnut’s Health Exam
Chestnut is the first hoary marmot to live at Northwest Trek, so keepers, veterinarians, and other staff were “mesmerized and curious” about Chestnut’s arrival, according to the press release.
Upon arrival, every animal new to the wildlife park undergoes a comprehensive health exam. With the help of keepers and park scientists, the veterinary team took blood samples and X-rays, trimmed his nails, gave him essential vaccines, examined his mouth and teeth and weighed him. Chestnut weighed nearly 9 pounds. Adult males can weigh more than 10 pounds.
“He appears to be a very healthy, young marmot,” Dr. Case said in the press release.
About Hoary Marmots
According to the press release, hoary marmots are the largest member of the squirrel family. They are common in the subalpine regions of Mount Rainier National Park, which is around the southern limit of their range, but can be found all the way to Alaska. They eat vast amounts of meadow vegetation, including sedges and lupine. The thick layers of fat they develop allow them to hibernate eight to nine months each year. Hoary marmots are named for the silvery gray fur on their shoulders and upper back. Marmots are sometimes called “whistle pigs” for the exceptionally loud, shrill whistle-call they can make to warn against the presence of potential predators, according to the press release.
Keep Wildlife Wild
Animals that have been fed by people can become “food-conditioned,” meaning they seek out people for food. They learn to steal from picnic tables and trash cans and forage through visitors’ belongings. This behavior is unsafe for both wildlife and park visitors. Food-conditioned animals are very smart. They have learned to change their behavior to convince humans they need our snacks. They don’t; they’ve just discovered they can get an easy meal from humans, according to the press release.
Feeding wildlife can be as direct as sharing a lunch or tossing an apple core out the window, or leaving food or garbage exposed for animals to find, according to the press release. An animal may learn that “people equal food” after only one experience.
Once a wild animal becomes food-conditioned, it loses its natural fear of people and public places. Not feeding park animals keeps people safe and wildlife wild.
What’s the problem?
• Many animals store food to survive during winter months, but human food does not keep well. Animals that store human food may die as a result.
• Food scraps like apple cores or pizza crusts tossed off the road or trail instead of putting them in a secured trash bin can attract larger predators, such as coyotes and bears. Once these predators become used to humans, they may present a risk to humans and their pets.
• Food-conditioned animals are at a high risk of being involved in vehicle collisions and may die as a result.
• Feeding attracts large numbers of jays and ravens to areas that prey on other songbirds’ eggs and young.
To prevent this
• Always store food, beverages and toiletries in a hard-sided vehicle, campground food lockers or bear-resistant containers.
• Resist the temptation to feed wildlife and keep a safe and respectful distance.
• Keep a clean campsite and pack out all food and garbage from the backcountry.
• Place all garbage inside an animal-proof garbage can or dumpster. If the garbage is full, do not leave it.