British Columbia

'Return of the Marmots' set for Vancouver Island this spring

Nearly extinct a decade ago the Vancouver Island marmot population is slowly bouncing back thanks to captive breeding programs.

Cute and furry marmots named Luke, Leia and Han about to go home to Vancouver Island

The Calgary Zoo is sending 14 bred-in-captivity Vancouver Island marmots back home. (Calgary Zoo)

The force appears to be with the endangered Vancouver Island marmot population thanks to the likes of Luke, Leia and Han — three of 14 newborn pups given Star Wars-inspired names.

The animals were born into the Calgary Zoo's captive breeding program and are slated to be released back into their natural habitat on Vancouver Island this coming spring, bringing the number of wild marmots of that species to about 300, up from a low of 30 in 2003.

The Vancouver Island marmot population is estimated to be around 300, up from a low of 30 in 2003. (Marmot Recovery Foundation)

"It's an incredible recovery story," says Adam Taylor of the Marmot Recovery Foundation.

"The Vancouver Island marmot is a unique species that lives just on Vancouver Island and no where else," he said. "We've been able to bring those number back up, but there's still a long way to go."

Taylor says the marmots will likely be released on Mount Washington in May or June of 2016. 

"There's a really healthy colony of marmots right on the ski slopes at Mount Washington," he said. "Right now they're all in hibernation so if you go up skiing you're not going to see them, but in the summertime you will."

After a year acclimatizing to life in the wild, the marmots will be relocated to more remote marmot colonies elsewhere on Vancouver Island.

"Hopefully they'll survive and breed and breed and breed and generate more marmots," said Taylor.

Loss of habitat and predation by cougars, eagles and wolves drove the Vancouver Island marmot population to the brink of extinction just a decade ago.

Playing on the Star Wars theme, Taylor has dubbed the release the "Return of the Marmots" noting they're more Ewok than Jabba the Hut.

"The Vancouver Island marmot is just adorable," he said. "There's an international symposium of marmot biologists and of all marmot species in the world they were voted the cutest."