The Plight of the Pika

pika in the mountains

Local wildlife feeling the heat

By Deanna Drew

Summertime hikes into the high country wouldn’t be the same without our furry little friends, the pikas.

These small animals with short round ears and grayish-brown fur can easily be mistaken for a large mouse, but are actually the smallest member of the rabbit and hare family. In the western United States, American pikas are found throughout the Rocky Mountains, in rock slides above tree line at elevations between 10,000 and 14,000 feet.

Hikers who are hearty enough to travel up beyond the forest are rewarded by watching the pikas dash back and forth from the scree to nearby alpine meadows carrying mouthfuls of alpine grasses and wildflowers, or seeing one sit like a fuzzy lump on a lichen-covered rock with ears up, using sharp, high-pitched cries to defend its territory or warn the colony of danger. Cute and conspicuous, the endearing pika has become an integral part of Colorado’s mountain lifestyle.

But according to scientists who study how wildlife is adapting to climate change, warming temperatures in the mountains are forcing some pika populations out of their high-country habitats. Studies over the past several decades suggest that climate change is making living conditions in the high elevations unsuitable for pika, with some populations experiencing higher stress, lower survival rates, and less activity due to the rising heat. In certain warmer and drier parts of the Rockies, pikas have already disappeared.

Pikas are members of an ancient order of mammals called Lagomorpha that includes alpine and snowshoe hares and dates back to about 60 million years ago. Resourceful and resilient, this mountaineering relative of the rabbit is one of the few animals that have managed to colonize the alpine zone area above tree line. Rock-strewn and dotted with wildflowers and clear icy pools of water, the alpine zone is a mountainous realm of alpine meadows and tundra similar to the Arctic. Albeit breathtaking, the alpine zone is a harsh and demanding environment with minimal vegetation, bitter cold, and fierce winds, where plants and animals have had to adapt in order to survive.

Pikas are herbivores that don’t hibernate, so they spend the summer months busily preparing for winter. Normally, pikas make thousands of foraging trips from their dens in talus slopes to nearby meadows, gathering vegetation and storing it on “hay piles” among the rocks for eating in winter. However the pikas, which are only active in the daytime, are not a heat tolerant species. With a warming climate, pika can’t forage all summer like they used to. Hotter days force the pikas to spend more time seeking shelter and shade in the rocks, and less time collecting vegetation and storing it in their hay piles. By the time temperatures cool off and foraging picks up again in September, freezing nights trigger the sensitive alpine plants to shut down and there are fewer opportunities for food.

Scientists are especially concerned about how a decreasing winter snowpack will affect pika populations. Pikas depend on a deep, insulating blanket of snow to survive the winter in their dens below the rocks. Now in the West, winters are becoming shorter and less snow is falling, so the snowpack melts away more quickly in the spring. This leaves the pika and their young more exposed to the nighttime cold, at a critical time when their food stashes are running out.

Because pika are so fine-tuned to their unique way of life in high-elevation talus habitats, they’re especially vulnerable to the effects of a warming climate and are thus considered an excellent indicator for the progression of climate change. Pika are active during the day and relatively easy to find, allowing researchers to use citizen scientists and volunteers to help gather information about the animal to better understand how the change in climate could threaten the survival of pika populations.

Alessandra Jacobson is a longtime Telluride resident and concerned naturalist who spends all her summer days off in the high country. For many years, she closely observed and scientifically monitored pika colonies above 10,200 feet in Bridal Veil Basin with local high school students. She says her classes used to see huge hay piles with very active pika colonies, but over the years she hasn’t seen as many pikas out and about. “I became upset about how few pikas I was finding over the last couple summers.” Alessandra explained. “One colony at a lower elevation does not exist at all anymore.”

The retired scientist is raising money to increase local awareness of the pika’s plight by creating advertisements using the animal as a reason to pay attention to fossil fuel consumption. “If people are familiar with pikas from hiking in the high country, and if they learn the adorable pikas are struggling from climate change…perhaps people will be more inclined to care. Do we want them to perish?”

A nature lover at heart, Jacobson insists she’s not trying to save pikas, just trying to get people to pay attention to how their actions affect the environment. She suggests measures like not flying private jets or driving giant SUVs, consuming less, getting solar panels, buying green energy, and offsetting energy use as simple yet effective steps people can take to reduce their carbon footprint. “Be a minimalist. Climate change is impacting local species and processes, and there are things you can do to help.”

Jacobson’s main point is to get people to care about what’s happening locally in our region with climate change. “Hey, we’re in trouble here. I just want to bring it home.”

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