Protecting the Pint-Sized Pika

The adorable American pika has quickly become a symbol of climate change’s collateral damage. A new study suggests there may be hope for this charming mammal in Idaho's Pioneer Mountains.


By Christine Peterson on March 25, 2016

They look a little like furry potatoes with big, round ears, says Oregon State University courtesy faculty Donelle Schwalm. 

American pikas, the high-mountain dwelling cousin to the rabbit, are best known by hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts for their adorable faces and the “eep” sound they make to communicate with one another in their rocky colonies. Read our deputy director's story about a special pika encounter.

They’re also quickly becoming a symbol of climate change’s collateral damage. 

But a new study published recently by Schwalm and others in the journal Global Change Biology, paints a potentially hopeful picture for the American pika. On one hand, colonies across much of the West, including those in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks may disappear in the next 90 years. Other colonies, like those in Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, will likely persist. 


 
Vitale Pioneers 640 x 400 


Pioneer Mountains Offer Protection 

But also important in the pika’s future may be a connection to populations in other areas. That’s where The Nature Conservancy comes in. 

During the course of almost a decade, the organization has helped conserve and place easements on just under 80,000 acres in the Pioneer Mountains northwest of the monument, says Mark Davidson, director of conservation initiatives for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho. 

The project started as a way to prevent a large transmission line from crossing through an area north of Craters and through the heart of the Pioneers. It quickly snowballed into an effort to protect huge swaths of the Pioneers landscape, Davidson says. 

“The idea is tying together migration corridors and protecting sage grouse habitat,” he says. 

While pronghorn and sage grouse might have been the first species considered while developing easements, animals like the pika could be ancillary beneficiaries. The Pioneers connect to the southern end of the northern Rocky Mountains, where pika range continues well into British Columbia. 

 

The Climate Change Connection 

Why is a small, rodent-like animal, so susceptible to climate change? Because of heat. 

The pika, with its thick fur coat and ability to survive harsh winters, overheats easily. Its internal temperature is about 104 degrees Fahrenheit. While a pika can live in a wide range of ambient temperatures of 14 up to almost 80 degrees, the microclimates where they spend most of their time under rocks, in cracks and in talus fields average 32 degrees, Schwalm says. 

Higher, colder elevations, when available, may not offer the same amounts of vegetation pikas also need to survive. 

Put simply: When those microclimates warm, a pika overheats and dies. Warmer winter days also mean thinner, insufficient snowpack to protect pikas from frigid temperatures.

 

 Craters 640 x 400

 


A Rocky Refuge 

Their heat sensitivity makes another finding in the report even more surprising. Craters of the Moon, notable for its lava flows, other-worldly landscape and relatively low elevations, will likely keep some of its pikas. And land protected by easements adjacent to the monument could further extend the animals’ range, helping ensure their continued existence. 

“You would think they couldn’t make it there now, and certainly in the future they will be extinct,” Schwalm says. “But Craters of the Moon will maintain them at a smaller population in core areas where elevations are a little higher.” 

A team of researchers from Oregon State University spent three years surveying eight national parks and monuments across the West as part of the National Park Service’s Pikas in Peril project. Unlike many wild mammal projects, the scientists did not trap and study the animals. A stressed pika is often a dead pika, Schwalm says, so instead they looked for signs of the animals. 

“Pikas are very detectable if you take the time to look around,” she says. “They make very visible hay piles and poop piles. If you get there at the right time they will eep at you.” 

The hay is actually vegetation pikas collect and dry on rocks to store for winter food, she adds. 

Researchers found that consistent precipitation in Craters of the Moon may continue to provide pikas with nutrients, and the unique ancient lava flows will, ironically, provide chilly shelter.

Schwalm credits, at least in her hypothesis, the thick lava beds which allow pikas to find even cooler temperatures deep underground. 

 
Questions Remain 

The effects of climate change on pikas in each of the national parks, while well researched, is still a theory, Schwalm says. Until landscapes fundamentally change, researchers might not know the direct impacts. But the scientific guess is a good one, she adds. 

The same applies to the importance of surrounding lands to the populations, a question that still remains. 

“We have some additional genetic questions we want to ask,” Schwalm says. “Just in general, work that remains to be done includes getting a better feel for how their food availability will change in the future, and a better understanding of what will and will not facilitate movement.”

 

More: Read our deputy director's story about a special pika encounter.

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