Groundhogs live among us – sort of

groundhogThursday is Groundhog Day, which begs the question: Do groundhogs inhabit the Northwest?

I’ve lived here my whole life and don’t recall anyone ever saying they saw a groundhog in the wild. So I poked around online.

Turns out, groundhogs are actually the largest member of the squirrel family, Sciuridae. And although technically we don’t have groundhogs in Washington or Oregon, they are a type of marmot, and marmots are quite common here.

Groundhogs like Punxsutawney Phil, Pennsylvania’s most famous rodent, go by the scientific name Marmota monax. They’re also called woodchucks or whistlepigs in different parts of the U.S. They range from the East Coast to the Midwest, with some as far north as Alaska.

If you want to celebrate Groundhog Day around here in the company of a groundhog, you’ll need to find one in a zoo. And it’s likely hibernating.

But if it were summer you could go to where their close kin, marmots, hang out. Places like Mt. Rainier and almost anywhere along Cascade mountain trails, where the shy critters whistle among the boulder fields.

One summer we discovered that Fields Point Landing, on Lake Chelan, is overrun by marmots that live among the boulders that border the parking lot.

two marmots in meadow The Nature Conservancy says our local species are hoary marmots, Marmota caligata. The Olympic Peninsula has its own species, appropriately called the Olympic marmot. You’ll see them ambling around alpine meadows and on Hurricane Ridge, but nowhere else in America. Likewise, the Vancouver Island marmot is found only – you guessed it! On Vancouver Island.

Alas, like groundhogs, marmots hibernate through the winter. So it’s doubtful you’ll find one anywhere Thursday.

But you can watch baby marmots pawing each other here.

by  Jon Osterberg

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