MOUNT WASHINGTON -- The latest batch of Vancouver Island Marmots, an endangered species, has been released into the wild this week with extra protocols in place because of the pandemic.

"We are taking extraordinary precautions to ensure that the marmots are safe during the pandemic, as well as our crew and the other partners that we work with," said Marmot Recovery Foundation executive director Adam Taylor

As many as 19 of the endangered marmots could be released this year, many on Mount Washington where the colony is considered a 'cornerstone' of the group's recovery effort to date.

"We've got a few going into Strathcona Park, a fair number coming here to Mount Washington and then a few more that will be going into the Nanaimo Lakes area," said Taylor.

Taylor says 20 years ago there were fewer than 30 Vancouver Island Marmots living in the wild. Now, with the creatures being vulnerable to diseases, extra efforts are being taken this year to ensure they are not affected by COVID-19.

He says there is no certainty that the virus poses a risk to the marmots but that the group is not willing to take any risks.

"This is a zoonotic disease so it has spread from animals to humans and from humans back to animals and that certainly increases the risk," Taylor said.

He says most the concerning fact is that hamsters can be affected by the virus and that since they are a rodent, like marmots, extra precautions are necessary.

The precautions include thoroughly cleaning any equipment that comes near marmot habitats and staff members wearing gloves and masks when near the critters.

"This year we have two independent field teams that are working quite separately from each other to ensure that they're maintaining social distance and then we're taking extra precautions with all of our sanitizations," said Taylor.

One of the team leads for this year's efforts is Quinn Andrews who says the endangered marmots are well-loved by islanders.

"It's a big part of Vancouver Island, it's an amazing Canadian species,” said Andrews.

“For islanders especially who are so passionate about our island, it's a keystone species. It's super important for our vision of who we are and where we live."