What is the first animal that comes to mind when you think of the high backcountry of the Sierra Nevada? Most neophytes would immediately pick the black bear; our ursine friends certainly get lots of publicity. Anyone who actually spends significant amount of time hiking the Sierra would most likely pick the yellow-bellied marmot. If, like your favorite sports team, the John Muir Trail ever got a mascot, it would have to be that friendly, giant, ground-squirrel.
You will usually spot the yellow-bellied marmot (marmota flaviventris) on the second day of your southbound hike. Although their range technically begins at around 6,500 feet elevation, I’ve never seen one below 7,500 feet. I usually see the first ones around Sunrise Camp. From then on marmot sightings will probably be a daily event.
Here are a few more dry facts, before we get to the important stuff. Adults stand (and they often stand!) a couple of feet tall and weigh in at around ten pounds. Males outweigh females. They are territorial; a typical territory can be as large as seven acres, although, in rougher terrain, it may be a lot smaller. They are social, living in groups of one or two dozen under the leadership of a dominant male. They hibernate in good-sized dens. How long they spend in those dens, sleeping the winter away, depends on the elevation and the weather that winter. This winter they no doubt slept quite well; some may still be slumbering beneath the snow.
They are mostly vegetarians, although they do go in for a tasty bug or bird egg. I’ve watched them chase grasshoppers with such diligence that I assume they are a true delicacy.
It has been my experience that you will find two kids of marmots on your hike: those who want no part of humans (and will scamper under or behind a rock as soon as you are detected), and those who just can’t control their curiosity. I’ve never been close enough to touch one, but I’ve had them sit on the top of rocks, posing, within six feet of the trail. I suspect that the brave ones have come to associate backpackers with snacks. Although I have never fed one – and I wouldn’t suggest you do – neither could I condemn, too vigorously, a hiker who traded a few M&Ms for a memorable wildlife photo.
I know we aren’t supposed to anthropomorphize the wildlife, but anyone who doesn’t want to pick up one of these little critters and give them a hug might want to want check with the cardiologist – you may have left your heart somewhere back on the trail. (Of course, Mr. or Mrs. Marmot would likely not interpret that hug as a sign of affection and would probably bite the heck out of you. Marmots have numerous sharp teeth!)
The best reaction to a posing marmot is to simply smile back at this furry little creature and be grateful for the moment.
One last thing: they are not only photogenic, they are clever! If marmots are in the area you may want to ensure that candy bar you are saving for later is in your canister (not in the pocket of your backpack) before you take your lunch nap. They are smart enough to know that large, colorful backpacks often reward the persistent chewer with sweet, sweet treats. You will find them substantially less charming if they gnaw a hole through your gear!