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Listen to the soothing sounds of pika calls while you enjoy this article:
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK — As the sun rises, its rays slowly make their way down the snow-capped peaks and on to the craggy cliffs, not yet illuminating the basin. In the low light, my eyes are peeled for a brown-and-gray critter with large round ears dashing from boulder to boulder.
One of Colorado’s most resilient animals looks a lot like a furry russet potato.
Pikas, relatives of rabbits known for their piercing chirp, live in some of the state’s most inhospitable climates in boulder fields at elevations up to 14,000 feet along treeless slopes of the Southern Rockies. They work for hundreds of hours across the short summer months to gather grass and wildflowers to last as fuel through harsh Alpine winters. Snowpack on top of the rocky debris insulates them through spring and winter. Climate change is putting all that at risk.
It has taken me hours to get to the site I was assigned to search for signs of pikas. The first 3½ miles into Rocky Mountain National Park were dragged out with breaks beneath trees to wait out fat raindrops my rain jacket couldn’t handle, before setting up camp at Glacier Gorge, where I sought refuge yet again in my tent from pea-sized hail pelting from the sky. The next morning: 3 more miles across steep terrain and up snow patches still lingering in mid-July, and route-finding over rock slabs and through boggy ground with no cairns in sight.
But reaching the quiet basin in the shadows of Rocky’s imposing peaks was merely the first step.
After a day of training, volunteers go into the field at least once each summer on hikes ranging from easy to moderate to 16-mile expeditions to collect data on pikas. (Kristi Odom, Colorado Pika Project, Special to The Colorado Sun)
As a community scientist with the Colorado Pika Project, I joined a growing cohort of volunteers who have been trained on how to collect reliable data on pikas and their habitat that will not only help land managers and researchers understand how climate change is impacting the tiny animals, but also guide them to what can be done to protect the beloved mountain dwellers.
Since 2010, the partnership between nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild and the Denver Zoo has enlisted “pika patrollers” to survey pika habitats — measuring boulders, looking for fresh scat and hay piles, recording temperatures and other data — across the Front Range. The project expanded to White River National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park in 2018.
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Last summer, 252 volunteers and staff members roamed Colorado’s mountains, collecting data at 145 sites. After a day of detailed training to learn complex data collection methods, volunteers go into the field at least once each summer on hikes ranging from easy to moderate to 16-mile expeditions. The project’s directors expect participation this season will top last season’s numbers.
The project’s mission to better understand Colorado’s pika population and how they are being affected by climate change became even more invaluable after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered listing pikas for federal endangered species protection in 2010, but declined — in part because researchers said they didn’t have enough data about them.
Latest data collected through the project suggests that climate change is driving pikas from areas where they’ve been spotted before.
“We’ve identified a number of locations where we know that pikas used to be, but we don’t see them there right now,” said Alex Wells, former co-director of Colorado Pika Project and community conservation director at the Denver Zoo.
“Why is that happening exactly? That is something that we’re trying to dig into.”
• Pikas are often mistaken for rodents. They have big round ears, lack a visible tail and scramble instead of hop. But they aren’t related to rodents at all — they are lagomorphs, a classification which includes rabbits and hares.
• Pikas have a high resting body temperature of roughly 104.2 degrees Fahrenheit, which helps them survive harsh alpine winters. But in the summer, extended exposures to 80 degrees can be lethal to pikas.
• A single pika, weighing about 4 ounces on average, collects roughly 65 pounds of food every summer
Climate modeling by the National Park Service suggests that by 2100, pikas may be effectively gone from Rocky Mountain National Park as temperatures rise in higher areas of the park, resulting in less snow to provide thermal protection from cold temperatures through the winter.
“So there’s reason to be concerned about pikas, and that’s why we’re keeping an eye on them,” Wells said. “It’s a lot easier to conserve a species at the start of its decline than toward the end of it, when there’s very few left of them.”
The good news, though: Collecting data on pikas is relatively easy, compared to other animals that are far more shy and less vocal than the charismatic mammals, which emit a high octave “eep!” to warn others in their colony about intruders or protect the haystacks they strategically place under large rocks to dry that will serve as food through the winter.
They also leave traces that are easy to find. Their poop lasts for decades, which wildlife biologists can analyze for its DNA. Scat contains hormones that can help researchers evaluate pikas’ stress levels at a particular site, giving insight to whether it’s a good habitat or not. Their hay piles, which grow bigger as the summer progresses, are also easy to spot.
(Videos by Kristi Odom, Colorado Pika Project, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Early findings from an ongoing study shows pika populations across the Southern Rockies are decreasing at lower elevations because it’s getting too hot. In more than 89% of the watersheds surveyed, pikas have retracted upslope by about 1,160 ft, said Peter Billman, a University of Connecticut Ph.D. student conducting the research.
“We already have pikas at the highest elevations across the region,” Billman said of the unpublished research. “It’s simply just pikas at lower elevations dying out and not recolonizing those low sites. So there used to be populations there but there no longer are.”
In the last two years, he’s studied pikas in about 214 sites in watersheds across Colorado from the West Elk mountains, to the San Juans, to Pikes Peak.
It’s not yet clear what’s causing the decrease, whether it be heat stress or pikas deciding not to mate at lower elevations where their traditional habitats are becoming less ideal.
“We’re not sure if it’s direct mortality or if they’re just not replacing themselves by breeding, or something else like that,” Billman said. “But yes, they’re simply not moving up like a typical animal would do.”
With more boots on the ground, with a mission to collect data, the closer scientists and land managers are to understanding what exactly is going on.
And that’s why it struck me as innovative when I first heard about the Colorado Pika Project’s efforts to engage avid hikers (who are in no short supply here in Colorado) to roam far-flung corners of the state in the name of science. So after signing up for a five-hour training last summer near Independence Pass, I secured an overnight permit in Rocky Mountain National Park this year to put my new skills to use and get a glimpse into the world of studying one of Colorado’s cutest — yet imperiled — species.
But if I am being completely honest: I also pursued this trip for the unbridled joy of seeing a pika with a mouthful of wildflowers in Colorado’s soothing high country. It can be rare to catch a glimpse of one collecting its summer bounty — its short limbs propelling its small round body from one large rock to another — before diving below the debris to return to their prized haystacks.
But when you do, it’s truly a sight to see.
Putting a (furry) face to climate change
Tucked high in the basin below giant granite slabs and near gushing waterfalls, the site I was assigned to collect data is far from the crowded trails in the nation’s fourth-busiest national park, its busy parking lots and monotonous whoosh of shuttle bus doors. Though it was Sunday, I passed only five hikers as I walked to my monitoring site.
At a wide field of chunks of granite broken off by erosion, I set up shop, using a yellow rope to measure a circle 24 meters in diameter from the plot center I found using GPS coordinates assigned to me by the Colorado Pika Project. This part of the park, at 11,340 feet elevation, was formed by receding glaciers as the ice age gave way to a more temperate climate.
On this brilliant midsummer morning, I’m convinced these pikas live in paradise.
But come winter, they will hunker down below the rocks, seeking shelter from brutal winds and surviving off the tall wildflowers, weeds and grasses they collected in the summer. What makes pikas capable of surviving in the Alpine could also be making them especially vulnerable to climate change as temperatures rise and snowpack melts earlier across the intermountain West.
The mountain dwellers are considered an “indicator species,” meaning that if climate change is starting to impact an Alpine ecosystem, pikas are one of the first species that will show that change and can alert scientists.
Pikas are abundant across Colorado, their habitats ranging from 8,000 feet to the summits of 14,000-foot peaks. But in some parts of the country, declines in pika populations have been tied to decreases in snowpack, said Johanna Varner, an associate professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University who has been studying pikas since 2010.
Unlike most Alpine mammals, pikas don’t hibernate during the winter. The snowpack provides insulation for pikas and helps keep temperatures below the rocks close to 32 degrees, she said. If temperatures rise causing an area to get less snow, it could expose pikas to colder air temperatures.
“When we’re out recreating on top of the snow in pika habitat, the temperatures are almost always below 32 degrees — it’s almost always below freezing, hence the snow,” she said. “But for the pikas, once there’s a thick layer of snowpack, that thick layer of snowpack actually insulates them against those really cold winter temperatures.”
That same microclimate protects pikas on hot summer days as shade from the rocky debris, known as talus, offers much cooler temperatures. Pikas will make up to 14,000 trips each summer to forage enough flowers and grass to last them through the winter, averaging about 200 forays a day between the talus and nearby meadows. A single pika, weighing about 4 ounces on average, collects roughly 65 pounds of food every summer, Varner said.
This is like a clue that there’s something really wrong here or maybe this is a landscape that needs some additional conservation and management actions or protections.
— Johanna Varner, an associate professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University
Pikas are, as the saying goes, making hay as the sun shines.
“If you scale that into human terms, it would be like 25,000 pounds of food and you’d have to make 5,000 trips to the grocery store on every trip carrying home four heads of lettuce in your mouth,” Varner said.
But if the temperature gets too high, it could restrict pikas’ activity and in some places, they might not be able to gather enough food to last through the winter. Some pikas could withstand the temperature change by shifting their prime foraging times to dawn and dusk when the weather is cooler. But that could also make them more susceptible to predators, Varner said.
Observations collected by volunteers serve as a compass for researchers. If the pika population seems to decline in one part of the state, it gives scientists like Varner a signal to investigate further.
“This is like a clue that there’s something really wrong here or maybe this is a landscape that needs some additional conservation and management actions or protections,” she said. “With the basic idea that managing a landscape that’s good for pikas is going to be good for a lot of other things, too.”
It’s a lot easier to conserve a species at the start of its decline than toward the end of it, when there’s very few left of them.
— Alex Wells, former co-director of Colorado Pika Project and community conservation director at the Denver Zoo
Aside from climate change, researchers are looking at other possible threats to pikas, like how livestock grazing near talus fields could affect them, Varner said. There’s also concern over a highly contagious and fatal rabbit disease, known as rabbit hemorrhagic disease, that was first found in Colorado in 2020.
While it’s still unknown if pikas are susceptible to the disease, pikas are closely related to rabbits and could be at risk. Rabbits living at lower elevations could shuttle the disease into the Alpine tundra, she said. Hikers could also unsuspectingly carry the disease on their boots.
The power of community science
It would be difficult for Jennifer Prusse, a district wildlife biologist with the White River National Forest, to collect comprehensive data on pikas across her sprawling district’s 700,000 acres.
Each summer, her small team (consisting of a technician and occasionally an intern) completes between five to six pika surveys, using the same collection methods as Colorado Pika Project.
“We could probably cover 10% of what volunteers cover on the White River,” Prusse said. “So the work they’re doing is fantastic.”
Back in 2017, she asked the directors of the Colorado Pika Project, formerly known as the Front Range Pika Project, to expand to fill data gaps on the species, which was named as a focal species in the forest’s monitoring plan. Prusse remembered seeing sporadic pika observations across the forest, but no concrete data to illustrate the livelihood of pika populations amid climate change.
Data collected from the first three years of monitoring in the forest show that pika populations throughout the National Forest are stable, but additional years of data are needed to confirm that, Prusse said.
“They’re basically like the canary in the coal mine for us in terms of climate change and its impacts to the Alpine zone,” she said.
“If the pika population starts to decline, then we actually need to investigate further — is this climate change? Or is there something else? … But without this information whatsoever, we would not be doing anything really. We would just be (relying on) scientific literature.”
Six pika signs to look for when hiking
1. Pika sighting: pikas are about the size of a russet potato, have short gray and light brown fur, big Mickey Mouse-like ears and no visible tail.
2. Pika call: a pika chirp sounds like a squeaky toy (eep!) Marmot calls, on the other hand, are higher pitched chirps or whistles.
3. Fresh hay pile: fresh, green vegetation (including flowers, grass and leaves) neatly tucked under or near a crevice in a boulder field. Vegetation that looks ripped or gnawed at was likely gathered by a marmot, not a pika.
4. Old hay pile: no green vegetation; plants are dry and brittle
5. Fresh scat: pika fecal pellets are about the size and shape of a peppercorn. Fresh scat appears moist, greenish and in a stack atop a fresh haypile or a rock (not in the dirt).
6. Old scat: Still in the shape of peppercorn, but old pika scat is dry and likely not in a little stack on a rock.
(Video from Kristi Odom)
But for those unable to attend training or looking for a simpler way to help scientists, Colorado Pika Patrol created an app for anyone to submit data if they see or hear a pika while roaming Colorado’s backcountry. The app collects GPS coordinates while on the trail and hikers can submit pika photos, recordings of their calls and other observations.
Sometimes experts can grow short-sighted in where they look, said Varner, who has also studied pika in Wyoming, Oregon and Utah. “But somebody who doesn’t necessarily have all that background is a little bit freer to make observations in places that we might not usually find pikas and those kinds of unusual observations can tell us a lot about the ability of the species to sort of move through the landscape, adapt to new landscapes and use different habitat resources that we might not otherwise know.”
In Wyoming, for example, volunteers saw pikas living in downed trees and slash piles, she said. “It sort of led to this really new inquiry into this behavior that would never have happened were it not for that volunteer observation.”
Beyond increasing biologists’ understanding of pikas, Prusse sees the project as a refreshing way to teach people about the Alpine ecosystem and climate change through a species that could be severely impacted.
“Climate change, for some people, can seem really nebulous and (this project) actually provides a really concrete example of this really charismatic microfauna that we care about,” she said.
Planning for this trip spanned far longer than the Alpine summer, which is measured in weeks not months. I needed to secure a scientific research permit at the national park within the short window we have with the highest chances of observing pikas and had to re-read data collection protocols, before preparing to navigate the backcountry by downloading maps and entering waypoints into my phone (and remembering to pack a backup map).
It’s amazing how much time (and sweat) it took for less than two hours of observation of one of Colorado’s cutest climate warriors.
While peering under boulders and focusing on scat, lichen and any other sign of food caches, I recorded six pika calls, a fresh haystack and a pile of dried-up grass stashed in the rocks.
I saw only a single pika as it scurried away, plunging below the talus before I could admire its chubby cheeks.
A side note about marmots
In case you were wondering, there’s not much concern about Colorado’s marmot population, or “lazy slugs” as Alex Wells calls them.
Though the chunky rodents often occupy similar habitats to pika in high-altitude stretches of the state, they are not temperature sensitive like pikas and hibernate through the winter. Their populations seem healthy, said Wells, a former community conservation director for the Denver Zoo.
“They just laze about hanging in the sun, meanwhile pikas are working crazy hard, running back and forth from talus to meadow gathering food. The marmots are just fat and happy lying about.”
Download the pika patrol app here