Adorable but in Danger as Climate Changes

From OnEarth magazine of the NRDC.Thanks.
By Sharon Levy
October 13, 2010

Petite relatives of the rabbit, pikas are disappearing from some parts of their range. A visit to one of the places where they still flourish rekindles a decades-old love affair.
I hustle to keep pace with Chris Peterson, a tall, lanky man who strides along a steep slope just below Logan Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Lugging a 14-pound camera lens doesn’t even slow him down. At the edge of a talus field — a swath of boulders that lie heaped and tumbled across the mountainside — Peterson stops, and we both settle down to watch and listen. I’m tagging along with Peterson in hopes of reconnecting with an old love. His quarry is a petite, furry cousin of the rabbit known as a pika. In the American West, it’s become a sentinel for climate change.

I fell for pikas when I first hiked the Rockies and Cascades in the 1970s. They were easy to track back then, crying out from the entrances of their homes in high mountain crevices, their calls echoing off boulders. But in Oregon and California, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, pikas are vanishing from the lower-elevation, easier-to-reach parts of their range. I haven’t seen or heard one in more than twenty years. So I crouch next to Peterson and listen. “Sit still for a while in this park and something cool will happen,” he tells me.

Peterson has done a lot of sitting still here. He’s the editor and publisher of Glacier Park magazine, but on this trip, he’s also part of a citizen science project designed to monitor and track pikas and mountain goats, both of which face dramatic warming in their high-elevation habitats. Pikas are the only mammals that survive alpine winters without hibernating or migrating down-slope. Huddled in rocky crevices, they wait out the cold months, feeding on hay collected during the summer. But the thick fur that used to serve pikas well on cold, wind-swept mountainsides may cause them to overheat as climate change brings warmer summer temperatures to the mountains of the West. And during the winter, deep snowpacks that once served as good insulation for the animals — like the thick-walled igloos that keep Arctic residents warm — are thinning. With less protection from extreme cold, some pikas may freeze to death on icy mountain tops.

If more people could fall for pikas the way that I did back in the ’70s, perhaps more people would care that they’re threatened. That’s part of the idea behind the project that’s sending volunteers like Peterson to remote alpine rock piles to look and listen for them. The data collected by these volunteers — 109 this season, ranging in age from 14 to 82 — will also help scientists track the impacts of climate change on the park’s wildlife.

In a way, it’s a frustrating experiment, because their findings are unlikely to suggest a solution beyond the obvious one — stop polluting and heating up the atmosphere. But that’s partly the point. “Protecting the pika is about getting the word out and encouraging people to change the culture,” says Lucas Moyer-Horner, a University of Wisconsin graduate student who has studied Glacier’s pikas for the past three years. “People actively participating as citizen scientists are doing just that.”

At this point, the pikas appear to be surviving better here than the glaciers that give the park its name. The latest forecast predicts that all of the park’s glaciers will have melted away by 2020. But Moyer-Horner has found that, so far, all the talus piles of any size in the park seem to shelter pikas. During the summers of 2007-2009, he and other biologists found that while the animals busily foraged in the early morning and late afternoon, they cut back on their activity and sheltered beneath boulders during the heat of the day. Pikas were more active and more numerous at higher elevations in the park and in places that have bigger boulders and deeper talus deposits, which offer better shelter from the heat.

Pikas farther south aren’t doing so well, though. In the late 1990s, biologist Erik Beever searched for pika populations that had been previously documented in the Great Basin, a vast sweep of land dotted with 314 mountain ranges and encompassing parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho and Arizona. He found that seven of 25 populations had vanished, an extirpation rate of about 30 percent. Pikas disappeared from the warmer, lower elevation parts of their range; those that survived were found in higher, colder habitats. A separate study found that pikas in the Sierras in Yosemite National Park had moved 1,700 feet higher up the mountains over the past 90 years. These findings suggest that as temperatures continue to climb, pikas will become increasingly isolated on small islands of alpine rock, unable to cross the warm valleys. That’s a recipe for genetic isolation and more local extinctions.

Moyer-Horner is now wrapping up his own pika study, which means that keeping track of what happens to pikas in Glacier will fall mostly to volunteers like Peterson. Jami Belt, who coordinates Glacier’s citizen science program, tells me that most of the 100-plus volunteers are locals who can reach the park with an hour or two of driving, and all have a passion for the mountains. Many have told Belt that they need a reason to get out to the park more often. Others say that volunteering is a way to give back to a place that feeds their souls.

Peterson understands that feeling. He estimates that he hiked about 180 miles of trail last year looking for pikas and mountain goats. He’s documented several previously unknown pika populations during his marathon walks. A few minutes after we settle in at the edge of our talus field at Logan Pass, he points out the shape of a bighorn ram camouflaged above us on a gray-brown cliff. While a dark cloud drizzles rain onto our parka hoods, Peterson scrambles easily among the boulders. He uncovers the remnants of an old pika hay pile, a heap of brown, desiccated fir needles, asters, and penstemon. The same plants now flourish around us in bright summer shades of green, purple and yellow.

After the cloudburst has passed, we hear the distinctive, high-pitched exclamation of a pika announcing its territorial rights. Following the sound, we spot it twitching at the entrance to its rocky warren, scanning for competitors of its own kind. Seen up close, the pika is painfully cute, its black eyes shining, nose twitching, short ears swiveling to capture sound. I feel my heart beat a bit faster. It’s good to know that these tough, charming creatures still haunt some of the high mountains of the west, even if they’ve faded from some of the places I first saw them decades ago. And I’m glad a small army of dedicated volunteers is keeping watch over them. Anyone who spends time around pikas, I think, will care about their future.

I savor the moment, then head back uphill toward my car. Peterson lingers, clicking close-up portraits of the pika. “I always have trouble saying goodbye,” he explains.


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