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The Bald Marmot Situation

November 21, 2013 Posted by: Meghan Hiegler, 2013 Archives Intern
Woman feeding marmot, circa 1925. Photo: YELL 193674-3

Occasionally while reviewing an archival collection, a reader runs into a topic title that is so dramatic it distracts said reader entirely from the original project. In this case, it was the phrase “the bald marmot situation” from a January 24, 1990, letter by Professor Judith S. Weis. (My original topic, for the record, was vegetation documentation).

The bald marmot situation raises interesting questions about the environmental impacts of tourism.  Beginning in the late 1980s, marmots living near Old Faithful Geyser would emerge hairless from their winter dens under the boardwalks.  Not surprisingly, both visitors and park staff were concerned. In 1993, the park received a letter from a student in Italy asking about the bald marmots, showing just how far interest in the park traveled, even before the era of social media.

Several causes were posited.  One theorized that the marmots were consuming high amounts of junk food dropped by visitors in the highly trafficked areas around Old Faithful Geyser. Another theory suggested it might be the boardwalks themselves causing the hairlessness since the animals emerged from underneath the boardwalks bald, but would grow a full coat by the end of summer before repeating the same process over the next hibernation period. Tests also revealed that their fur contained traces of arsenic, which is found in treated lumber like that used to create the boardwalks.

Either way, the localized nature of the bald marmots pointed to an environmental factor. Due to heavy visitation at Old Faithful, most of the letters in the file agreed that the situation might be caused by a tourism-related activity, whether it was the boardwalks constructed to protect tourists, or the actions of visitors.

Unfortunately, the bald marmot research concluded without pinpointing the cause.  The fifth year that the marmots emerged hairless happened to be 1988. The fires of that summer changed the focus of much of the park’s research. Writing at the end of 1990 or the beginning of 1991, Dr. Mary Meagher said, “The fires of 1988 served to break the continuity of attention for some topics, and the hairless marmot issue seems to be rather inactive.” The last few documents in the files report that the research was inconclusive and, since the marmots seemed healthy despite their strange loss of hair, was not being continued. Today, rangers report that the marmots are no longer bald. Whether it was changes to the boardwalk, which is now higher from the ground and constructed of different materials, or the positive effects of educational efforts to reduce litter and the feeding of wildlife, the cause of the situation as well as its resolution is as yet undetermined.

The Bald Marmot Situation, then, offers interesting insight to the relationship between tourists and their environment and the possibly negative interplay between the two, but also the shifting focus caused by large scale events.

And it has a catchy title. 

 Sources: Resource Management records, Yellowstone National Park Archives.

 


3 Comments Comments Icon

  1. Anita - Estes Park, CO
    August 03, 2014 at 11:07

    Hairless marmots have been seen this summer at Rocky Mountain National Park at Cub Lake. This is a popular hiking area. Also, Cub Lake was in the burn area during the fire of October-January 2012.

  2. Sarah Krzanowski - Torrington, CT
    May 02, 2014 at 02:43

    I'm writing a paper on the possible reasons for a decline in the marmot population in the Old Faithful Geyser Basin. (I worked in the park in 1995 and there were tons of marmots (with full heads of hair, mind you) but when I came back to the park for a visit in 2005 there were hardly any there. I've asked what happened to them and was told that a re-do of the boardwalks in 1998 allowed coyotes to reach the marmot dens, and so they were killed.

  3. Mary Ann - Auburn, AL
    November 25, 2013 at 08:59

    "Catchy title" indeed! It sounds a bit like a Sherlock Holmes mystery! :) But I am glad the marmots are doing well!!

 

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Even though the animals of Yellowstone seem tame they are still wild. Feeding the animals is not permitted in any way, and all visitors must keep 100 yards away from wolves and bears, and 25 yards from other animals.