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Marmot scurries toward state title

Wed., March 25, 2009, 11:37 a.m.

It’s cute, it’s friendly, it greets others of its kind by touching noses and smelling cheeks.

It likes to sunbathe on rocks and hang out in the summer along Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park.

The Olympic marmot is on track to become Washington’s official “endemic mammal,” joining the ranks of the orca (official marine mammal), willow goldfinch (official bird) and steelhead trout (official fish).

The marmot deserves the title, say its supporters, because it’s the only mammal found solely in Washington.

Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, agreed to sponsor a bill making the designation official under pressure from eager fourth-graders at Seattle’s Wedgewood Elementary School. As part of a state government unit, the students sent e-mails to lawmakers and showed up in Olympia in February to testify for Jacobsen’s bill.

Senate Bill 5071 passed the Senate 43-4 on March 11 and got the nod Tuesday from the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Affairs.

One reason the marmot is scurrying through its confirmation process may be that the measure won’t cost the state a dime.

Hikers on Hurricane Ridge know the foot-tall marmot, which basks on rocks during summer mornings and afternoons and emits a distinctive series of whistles when it senses a predator nearby.

In the daytime, marmots visit each other’s burrows and extend greetings by nibbling each other’s ears and necks. They also engage in play fighting, standing on their hind legs and pushing each other with their paws. They return to their burrows at night.

From September to May, Olympic marmots hibernate. Their most common predators are the coyote and the puma, though they’re also wary of bobcats, bears and large birds of prey.

Marmots have family values. A typical family consists of a male, two or three females and their young. The newborns stay with their parents for at least two years and do not reach sexual maturity until their third year.

They’re mostly vegan, chomping on grasses, herbs, mosses and flowers and the occasional insect.

Found only on the alpine and subalpine meadows and talus slopes of the Olympic Peninsula, their numbers are declining, in part because of the encroachment of trees into the meadows of the park.

The Olympic marmot is a protected species in Washington.

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