The state animal of Washington is the Olympic marmot. A marmot is a burrowing animal of the rodent order in the squirrel family. The creature, sometimes referred to as a "giant squirrel," resembles a squirrel with its pert nose set on a narrow face with bright, dark round eyes. The marmot's body is rounded, covered with thick light-brown or silvery gray fur capped by a reddish-brown bushy tail. Indigenous to Washington state, the Olympic marmot is part of a family of 14 other marmot species throughout North America, Europe and the Siberian region of Russia, including the woodchuck, groundhog, rockchuck, whistler and hoary marmot.
The marmot was chosen as the state animal of Washington — or, more accurately, the state endemic, or unique land mammal — on May 12, 2009. The legislation was the collaborative efforts of students at the Wedgwood Elementary School in Seattle, Washington; Burke Curator of Mammals Jim Kenagy and Washington senator Ken Jacobsen. Washington state recognizes two state mammals: the orca, or killer whale, as its marine mammal and the marmot as the state animal of Washington.
The Olympic marmot is unique to the alpine region of Washington's Olympic Mountains. Fewer than 2,000 Olympic marmots live in the Olympic National Park, where the animals are protected by state law. Two other marmot species populate Washington, the hoary marmot and yellow-bellied marmot, but these species are also located outside Washington and therefore are not endemic.
Marmots are herbaceous mammals, voraciously feeding on grasses, mosses, berries, lichens and flowers throughout the summer season. They create elaborately complex burrows in the ground or create grass-lined nests within rock piles, always creating an entry point and an exit point for their home. The marmot is a social animal that lives in colonies, with the typical marmot family unit usually consisting of one male, several females and their offspring. A marmot lookout is appointed to watch for predators; when one is spotted, the lookout whistles or screeches loudly to its colony to warn of danger. The lifespan of the marmot generally is about six years; it has many carnivorous predators and is sensitive to climate changes.
The marmot hibernates for about eight months, from September to May, losing nearly half of its body weight by February. Mild winters interrupt hibernation and threaten the marmot population with starvation and early season predation. Common marmot predators include the bear, eagle, bobcat, coyote and hawk. Hungry bears or coyotes might hunt for hibernating marmots in early spring.
Besides warning each other of danger and lurking in their burrows for safety, the marmot has no defensive tactic for repelling predators. The population of the Olympic marmot has been dwindling for more than a century. In the early part of the 20th century, there were about 25 Olympic marmot colony sites in Washington state; as of 2011, there were only 10. The state animal of Washington, therefore, is a protected species, and hunting the Olympic marmot is forbidden by law.