FAIRBANKS - Let’s get one thing straight: There are groundhogs in Alaska and the groundhog capital of the Last Frontier is right here in Fairbanks, as anyone who has seen a dead woodchuck alongside the road can tell you.
In fact, curators at the University of Alaska Museum of the North who know such things, say the earliest known museum specimen of a groundhog in Alaska was collected more than 100 years ago, meaning the species has been in the state for at least a century but probably longer. The earliest specimen from the Fairbanks area was collected in 1937, according to Link Olson, Curator of Mammals at the museum.
That being said, let’s get to the bottom of this Marmot Day controversy.
It all started last year when Sen. Linda Menard, R-Wasilla, got the cute idea to introduce a bill creating Marmot Day in Alaska as a substitute for Groundhog Day in the Lower 48, even though we have groundhogs in Alaska.
Not knowing any better — surprise — then-Gov. Sarah Palin signed the bill into law, making Feb. 2 officially Marmot Day in Alaska.
Now fast forward to Monday, when the Juneau Empire ran a story about Tuesday being Marmot Day in Alaska. The story, for whatever reason, stated there are no groundhogs in Alaska, which is why we have Marmot Day, even though groundhogs are a species of marmot, but that’s another matter we’ll get to later.
The Associated Press, which is big on cute stories about Alaska, picked up the story and ran with it. The story appeared on both the state and national news wire before Fairbanks Daily News-Miner opinion editor Sam Bishop, who is well aware of the fact that there are groundhogs in Fairbanks, saw the story. He phoned the AP to correct it, which the AP did by editing the story to say that groundhogs are “not common” in Alaska.
But the groundhog, also commonly called a woodchuck, was already out of the bag, or hole, by that time.
Aren Gunderson, a marmot expert at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, saw the first version of the AP story and e-mailed the reporter who wrote it to correct the misinformation about groundhogs.
Cathie Harms, from the Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks, also jumped on the groundhog bandwagon when she heard about the story by calling the News-Miner to clarify what the newspaper already knew.
“We do have wild populations of groundhogs and they’re the same ones as Punxsutawney Phil,” Harms said. “We don’t know how they got here but they’ve been here for a long time.”
Groundhogs are one of three species of marmots in Alaska and they are found primarily in Fairbanks and the surrounding areas, though how widely they range is unknown, Olson, the museum curator, said. The other two types of marmots are hoary marmots and Alaska marmots. Hoary marmots live in more mountainous terrain, such as the White Mountains to the north or Denali Park to the south, while Alaska marmots live in mountainous regions north of the Yukon River.
Olson and Gunderson have spent the past year trying to correct misinformation about groundhogs in Alaska as a result of the creation of Marmot Day.
“We e-mail or call anyone we can that we know is spreading misinformation about Alaska’s mammals,” Olson wrote in an e-mail.
Olson said he called Menard’s office the day the marmot bill was being considered and alerted her staff that there were factual errors in the bill, as did Gunderson.
Naturalist Mark Ross, education coordinator at the Department of Fish and Game, also contacted Menard’s office last year when the Marmot Day bill was being considered to make sure there was no confusion about the fact there are indeed groundhogs in Alaska.
“We should be careful that Marmot Day does not lead to confusion about the status of Groundhogs (Marmota monax) in Alaska,” Ross wrote in an e-mail to Menard.
Yet the confusion persists, even with the diligent efforts by the likes of local groundhog lovers like Ross, Olson, Gunderson and Harms.
“I would like everyone to be informed about the status of marmots in Alaska and it sounds like they need to be informed,” Ross said of the Marmot Day mixup.
During the years, Ross has developed a close relationship with one such marmot, a groundhog that lives under the barns at Creamer’s Field Migratory waterfowl Refuge. Ross monitors when the hibernating rodent emerges from its den each spring, usually in early April, and keeps a record of it.
“They’re sleeping right outside my office right now,” Ross said. “I love those little critters.”
Olson and his mammalogy cohorts at the museum aren’t offended by the lack of respect given to Marmota monax.
“Bemused, perhaps, but certainly not offended,” Olson wrote by e-mail. “As Aren says, this makes Groundhog Day more inclusive.
“We are one of only a small handful of states boasting three different species of marmots, one of which (the Alaska marmot) is found ONLY in Alaska,” he added. “We are pleased that our legislature considers marmots such a top priority!”
Of course, it’s not like we need marmots, groundhogs or woodchucks — whatever you want to call them — to predict whether or not we’re going to have another six weeks of winter in Fairbanks if they see their shadows.
We already know the answer to that question.