From Climate Change to Plague, The American Pika Faces Many Environmental Obstacles

Pikas are disappearing.

This is bad news not only because these critters are  fuzzy and adorable, but because they’re also seen as a canary in the coal mine for global climate change. While many biologists are taking notice of this fading species, government agencies are slower to recognize the change.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  recently rejected a petition to review the American pika’s status as a potentially endangered animal. In order to qualify as endangered, a species must experience a 50 to 70 percent decline, according to the Endangered Species Act. 

Endangered status aside, Chris Ray, a biologist at Boulder’s Institute for Alpine and Arctic Research, emphasizes the importance of pikas as an integral part of the high alpine ecosystem and as a signal for changing climate.

“They’re not really a significant source of food for any predators, and they don’t really provide much for the environment,” Ray said, “but when the permafrost disappears, so do the pikas. And that means no more water.”

This is particularly bad news for places like Utah and California, both of which depend heavily on high-mountain permafrost and snow melt for municipal water. Similarly, Boulder scientists like Ray are keeping a close eye on Rocky Mountain pika populations as an indication of the future of Boulder’s water supply.

According to Liesl Erb, another biologist and pika expert who has co-authored a paper concerning pikas and climate change with Ray, when pikas disappear, that’s a strong indication that permafrost too is about to fade away.

Biologist Chris Ray nets a Pika

“Pikas’ survival in the Rocky Mountains is a good indication as to their survival elsewhere,” said Erika Garouette, a mammalogist, and pika specialist at the Denver Zoo.

Because of the specificity of their preferred temperatures, pika habitats are few and far between. That leads to a 30 to 50 percent population decline, according to the Front Range Pika Project. In some areas that decline falls just short of what is required in order to be considered endangered.

Pikas, a native Colorado species, are the smallest members of the rabbit family and live in the talus slopes, or rocky patches of rock in high alpine environments such as the Rocky Mountains. These alpine critters evolved from Siberian ancestors that crossed the land bridge that once connected Alaska and Asia, and are dependent on cold and rocky slopes to survive.

Pikas can die when exposed to temperatures as mild as 78 degrees, according to a study by INSTAAR, a problem exacerbated by a warming climate and retreating permafrost. Once mountains begin to warm, pikas can only retreat so far upslope, causing many populations to decline or disappear altogether.

Pikas need a dense blanket of snow to provide insulation for harsh mountain winters. Without dependable snow cover, pikas can’t weather the extreme cold of high alpine winters, nor can they tolerate the increasingly warm summers. This August, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a study of pikas, and found that their population has dramatically decreased in areas of Utah and California, a decline that the USGS links to a warming climate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not take the USGS’s most recent findings into account when considering the pika’s status.

Luckily, Colorado populations are relatively robust. An extensive survey in 2008 by Colorado Parks and Wildlife examined 62 known pika habitats and found that 90 percent of these habitats still supported healthy pika populations. While Colorado is not exempt from climate change, it does boast altitudes above 14,000 feet, making it an ideal place for cold-seeking pikas. Since the 2008 survey, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has documented upwards of 900 occupied habitats boasting healthy pika populations.

As for the future of the pika, Ray is relieved that they didn’t receive classification as an endangered species.

“It could be potentially disastrous to have them classified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, because I don’t feel the ESA has the legislative teeth to help us protect the American pika by stopping global warming. I just don’t think that’s a viable tool,” Ray said.

That’s not to undermine the precariousness of the pikas’ situation, which is indeed dire. Populations in Utah, California and Oregon have decreased in numbers from 30 to 50 percent, according to the most recent USGS study.  As mountain tops warm and talus slopes become too warm to support pikas, they have no retreat. Besides bringing attention to the issue, the Endangered Species Act has no real way to address the root of the issue—namely, global climate change.

Though many people are upset that pikas won’t be appearing on the Endangered Species List, a more holistic approach to pika conservation is required, and this review of the fuzzy critter’s status could serve as a wake-up call to those unaware of the pika’s plight.

Audio Transcript 

*pika call*

Pikas, or tiny rabbit-like critters found on the rocky slopes of western mountains, are on the decline across the U. S. as their species faces many challenges, making it difficult to ascertain what exactly is causing pikas to die off.

One culprit is a changing climate, with warmer temperatures Pika’s habitats have become unsuitable for the cold-favoring burrow-builders who can perish in temperatures as mild as 70 degrees.

“Pikas will die if you hold them on the surface”

Chris Ray, a leading Mammologist and Pika expert at INSTAAR, the Institute for Arcitic and Alpine Research, explains.

“There isn’t some magical spot where the climate is perfect for pikas, they find the subsurface microclimate that works for them”

PIkas must burrow beneath the rocky slopes to stay cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. This tactic  helps them survivive, but makes them difficult to study.

“We can’t project subsurface climate yet”

Instead, scientists at INSTAAR rely on scat to predict how pika populations might fare in the face of climate change

“And so, we’ve developed a method of looking at stress hormones based on pika poop so you can just go collect the pika scat and see just how stressed out the population is

Another problem facing the American Pika?

“Plague! And ts possible that the disappearance of pikas is related to disease rather than climate”

Pika populations accross the U. S. are experiencing steep declines of 30-50% population reduction, and while Colorado populations are relatively stable for the time being, Ray’s population models do not bode well for Rocky Mountain PIkas

“Pikas will disappear from Rocky Mountain National Park”

Ray is careful to highlight the multitude of factors at play in pika population decline, and warns against settling on any one factor, be it disease or climate change.

“It’s a bigger problem than an endangered species problem, its a global problem, a human problem”

For Under the Flatirons, I’m Zoë Rom
*pika call*


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