Speaking with Lethbridge Country Club General Manager Brian Huculak, I learned that the marmots had already been living there for decades. “I started my employment here in 1985 and they were already residing here on our property at that point” says Brian. “We haven’t been able to find out from members exactly when they arrived, but it’s been 30 or 40 years minimum.”
As a local wildlife photographer and filmmaker, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about them earlier. But as Coreen Putman, Manager of the Helen Schuler Nature Centre told me, “many people can live in Lethbridge for their whole lives and probably never realize that we have marmots here.”
According to Coreen, “Yellow-bellied marmots are located in a little pocket of the central Rockies. Here in Lethbridge we’re on the northern edge of that range.”
The marmots may have arrived here during a flood event and found the habitat at the Country Club to be to their liking.
The rip-rap that was placed along the riverbank to protect it from erosion provides them with a good habitat, according to Golf Course Superintendent David Grant. “There’s concrete chunks with lots of cavities … they can move in there and live quite comfortably.”
After eight months of hibernation the marmots slowly begin to emerge from their burrows and begin feeding again on the rich spring grasses. In the wild they can live up to 14 years, but their population is often impacted by extreme weather, disease and predation.
Hawks and owls are always a threat, as are predatory mammals. “Sometimes we’ve had two or three families of coyotes living in the area and sometimes they’ve thinned them out pretty good” says David. “We had a badger one year that nearly wiped the entire population out … we were down to about a half a dozen going back into hibernation.”
To help defend themselves against predators, marmot sentries keep a sharp eye out for danger, and when they sense it, warn the others with a series of loud chirps that send the other marmots scurrying for their burrows.
Mating usually takes place within the first few weeks following hibernation, then after a gestation period of around 30 days the female will give birth to a litter of 4 - 6 pups. During this time the males will leave the natal burrow and temporarily relocate to other parts of the golf course.
Although the female will leave the burrow to feed, the pups remain there for up to five weeks before making their first appearance.
Within two weeks they will be fully weaned and begin feeding alongside the adults. “Similar to ground squirrels they really enjoy grasses, along with a wide-range of flowering plants and sedges” says Coreen.
This far north however, marmot season is quite short and by the end of August many of the adults will have returned to their burrows to begin hibernation again. During their first year, pups not only experience rapid body growth, but also need to build up sufficient fat reserves to see them safely through their first winter of hibernation. Their foraging season therefore is usually a little longer than that of the adults. But as nighttime temperatures begin to drop in early September, they too will begin hibernation.
Recent studies estimate that the southern Alberta population of marmots is about 1,200, and since many of these known colonies are sparsely distributed it perhaps implies that the occurrence of yellow-bellied marmots is relatively rare.
According to the Living Planet Report of 2018 published by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, global populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians continue to decline at unprecedented rates, and since 1970 they estimate we have lost over 60 per cent of these worldwide populations. One of the most serious threats, and a contributing factor to declining wildlife populations is the degradation and loss of wildlife habitat.
In 2003 the Lethbridge Country Club became a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, an award-winning education and certification program aimed at helping golf courses protect the environment by enhancing their natural areas and wildlife habitat.
In addition to marmots, there are many other wildlife species regularly seen at the Lethbridge Country Club including white-tailed and mule deer, foxes, coyotes, moose and last year, even a cougar was spotted, according to Brian and David. Garter snakes, bull snakes and rattlesnakes, frogs and a healthy population of tiger salamanders are also to be found here, along with over 50 species of birds that either reside here or migrate through.
Because of their environmental stewardship in this river valley habitat, the Lethbridge Country Club is perhaps one example of how sound planning and a willingness to peacefully coexist with wildlife can perhaps begin to reverse the trend of declining wildlife populations. That’s something the members of the Country Club take seriously.
“They really enjoy the fact that we have so much flora and fauna here on the golf course that we protect,” says Brian, “and make sure that in years to come, it will still look the same and feel the same as it did back decades ago.”