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American Pikas in peril

pika_JulianGothardPikas across the United States may face extinction says National Park Service

By Julian Gothard

“Pikas in Peril,” a recently published scientific journal article produced by the National Park Service (NPS) – in conjunction with Oregon State University, UC Boulder and University of Idaho – predicts an uncertain future for populations of the pocket-sized American Pika (Ochotona princeps). With its moniker purportedly derived from the Russian word “Pikat,” – meaning “to squeak” – this diminutive large-eared descendant of the rabbit family lives in high altitude talus fields in the mountains of the western United States.

Funded principally by the NPS Climate Change Response Program, researchers from the NPS recently completed a five-year study on Pika populations’ vulnerability to climate change across eight U.S. national parks. The predictions through the year 2100 vary by national park primarily because of differences in local environmental conditions like temperature, precipitation, habitat connectivity, topography, and genetic diversity. Whilst researchers in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming expect Pika populations to survive, the outlook for other national parks is not so rosy. Indeed, by the turn of the century, our local “rock rabbit” population in Rocky Mountain National Park (ROMO) is – according to some climate change models – expected to face total extinction.

“Climate models predict higher temperatures throughout the year at ROMO, declining habitat suitability and declining connectivity between patches. The combination of these factors is likely to lead to significant declines of Pika populations within the park.” [Pikas of Rocky Mountain National Park. Project Summary and Results.]

These shy and elusive lagomorphs are a favorite of tourists and photographers both in the high-elevation stretches of Rocky Mountain National Park – most notably along Trail Ridge Road – as well as in the talus fields, tundra and cirques on the final stretch of the ascent to the 14,271 foot summit of Mount Evans in the Chicago Peaks massif. Hike alongside high altitude boulder fields in late summer and you can often see Pikas making frantic preparations prior to the onset of winter when their “haying” operations – the laying up of alpine grass and plants – are frequently interrupted by territorial warning “barks,” “calls” and “whistles” somewhat akin to the sound of a dog’s squeaky toy.

Beyond the Pikas’ obvious furry cuteness factor, this tailless mammal is actually a crucial indicator of the overall health of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. As the climate changes in the Rockies and beyond, previously cool high elevation boulder fields may – according to the NPS research team – warm to such a degree that Pika populations can no longer survive in them.

“In general, the availability of Pikas’ preferred habitat – cold, high-altitude boulder fields – will decrease as temperatures rise in the coming decades,” said Donelle Schwalm, researcher at Oregon State University and lead author of the Pikas in Peril paper. “But even as we predict extinction of Pikas in some parks, other areas will continue to provide adequate shelter for Pikas to live and potentially thrive.”

Clearly, the potential loss of the American Pika would make hiking at high elevations a considerably more soulless and solitary experience and it’s thus rather surprising that a Democratic administration which has constantly trumpeted its “Green” credentials has to-date formally declined to list the American Pika as an endangered species.

Readers can find additional Pika habitat and climate change information by accessing the “Habitat Availability and Gene Flow Influence Diverging Local Population Trajectories Under Scenarios of Climate Change: A Place-Based Approach,” which can be found at the Wiley Online Library.

You can find more of Julian’s photographic work at www.GothardPhotography.com.

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