Are pikas in peril?

Lassen Park is part of an extensive study on the creatures

This pika was spotted during at trip to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho.

This pika was spotted during at trip to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho.

Photo By doug owen

All about pikas:
Learn more about the Pikas in Peril Project.

Behind a boulder at Hemlock Lake, they found it: the largest heap of pika scat biologists Nancy Nordensten and Mike Magnuson had ever seen. Not only that, the poop deposit—six feet wide, six inches deep and amassed, it seemed, over decades in this rocky corner of Lassen Volcanic National Park—was apparently the very same one described by another wildlife biologist named Vern Connelly, who tracked Lassen-area pikas in the 1960s and provided some of the earliest local data on this small relative of the rabbit.

“To follow his descriptions and find that same scat pile that he described was so cool,” said Nordensten, who, along with fellow National Park Service biologist Magnuson, has been tracking pikas in Lassen since 2006.

Here, mostly at elevations higher than a mile above sea level, pikas are without doubt still present in numbers. Magnuson and Nordensten have seen the animals in multiple locations, found evidence of them, and heard their shrieks, which they emit as warning calls to other pikas when predators or perils are detected.

But there is reason for concern that the pika—a small, furry creature that, along with rabbits and hares, is taxonomically a lagomorph, not a rodent—could be facing a future of trouble as climate change affects the high-altitude habitats favored by the small mammal, whose extremely dense fur makes it unable to bear long exposure to overly warm weather.

The federal government has recognized the pika’s vulnerability and in early 2010 launched the Pikas in Peril Project. The three-year study, currently under way in four national parks and preserves, is intended to establish a foundation of baseline data—basically presence or absence of pikas in what biologists determine to be potential pika habitat. Eventually, funds permitting, the project will develop into long-term, park-managed protocols of monitoring and tracking pika populations.

Scientists hunt for scat to determine the pikas’ territory. They are also collecting samples for DNA analysis to learn about the creatures’ movements and lifespan.

Photo By jeff murphy

So are the animals truly in any long-term peril, as the federal study’s title suggests?

“That’s what we’re looking at,” said Magnuson, who says no reliable estimates on local population numbers are available.

Nordensten added, “You might see a pika pop its head out of a rock, then see another one close by, but it’s impossible to know if it’s the same one or not.”

But pikas have disappeared in places. In parts of the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, pikas once observed and documented seem to be gone today for reasons possibly related to climate change, Magnuson said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided against listing the pika under the Endangered Species Act in early 2010, yet federal officials did not dismiss all concern for the animal’s security and identified the pika as an indicator species that may be one of the first “vital signs” of an ecosystem to react to the onset of climate change.

Subsequently, the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program granted about $750,000 to the Pikas in Peril Project, which is focusing on Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, Crater Lake National Park, and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. Four other federal lands—Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons National Park, Rocky Mountains National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Monument—may participate, as well.

Mackenzie Jeffress is spearheading the project. A research associate with the University of Idaho, she has surveyed pika habitat throughout the Western U.S. since 2007. “Pikas are very temperature-sensitive, and they behaviorally thermoregulate,” Jeffress said, explaining that by moving in and out of the shade of rock piles pikas can adjust as needed to the heat of the sun. Pika populations may also begin shifting into higher altitudes to escape the effects of a warming atmosphere, Jeffress said.

To stay warm in the winter, the animals burrow deep into the insulating protection of snow banks and subsist until late springtime on haystacks collected and stashed before the first snows. Should climate change affect the regions where most pikas live, melting of snow could drive the animals into still higher altitudes. Should the highest suitable habitat of a region be eventually rendered unsuitable, its pikas could disappear.

In fact, the pikas that left their scat over many years to create the large latrine at Hemlock Lake seem to be gone, said Magnuson, who added, “That was mostly old scat, some probably 10 or 15 years old.” And though Nordensten believes she might have heard a pika scream at the same site, she wasn’t certain.

Jeffress, who surveyed Lassen’s pika habitat with the local biologists in the summer of 2010, will be doing so again in summer of 2011. Then she will leave the work in the hands of Magnuson and Nordensten. Working off Lassen Volcanic National Park’s own budget, the pair hopes to revisit sites every one to three years to assess the stability of their respective pika populations. Analysis of pika DNA, extracted from scat, could help the scientists and their assistants learn about the creatures’ movements, their longevity and their fidelity to individual sites.

Eventually the project could answer the three-fourths-of-a-million-dollar question: Are pikas in peril?