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Colorado Pika Project Unites Hikers, Scientists To Monitor Alpine Critter

Ann Schonlau
Though pikas are not listed as an endangered species, a warming climate may bring other animals, along with diseases, into their alpine territory.

Climate change is raising temperatures, changing weather patterns and causing droughts. It also impacts wildlife like the American pika by threatening its high mountain habitat in Colorado and other parts of the West, but a group of scientists and outdoor enthusiasts are trying to help.

On a rainy morning in late June, a group of about 30 people gathered in a parking lot off Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“You are joining a long tradition of pika patrollers, scouring the Rocky Mountains of Colorado for pika and helping us to learn about them and ensure that we are aware of the trajectory of them in Colorado,” said Alex Wells, citizen science project specialist at the Denver Zoo and a co-director of Colorado Pika Project.

If you’ve ever been hiking above treeline, you’ve probably seen or heard the critters. But if you haven’t, Wells said they’re pretty distinctive.

“The best way to distinguish them is that they do not have a tail. Because oftentimes, you’ll see chipmunks or ground squirrels hanging up here and it’s honestly pretty easy to confuse the two,” he said. “But a pika, you’re looking for something like the size of a russet potato, really fluffy, gray or brown, Mickey Mouse ears, no tail.”

The crew hiked out of the parking lot and down a nearby trail. The mountain peaks with traces of snow and lack of vegetation marked the area as a high alpine environment.

About a half mile in, the group stopped at a patch of big, broken rocks, called a talus. This is prime habitat for the pika. Wells pointed out the first sign of the animal: scat.

“To identify pika scat, you’re going to want to look underneath rocks. Oftentimes, a larger rock will have scat underneath it,” said Wells. “And you’re looking for something about the size of a peppercorn, and a similar shape too. Really small, I know!”

Midway through his explanation, a pika squeaked and demonstrated another sign of its presence.

“A pika call is just like a classic squeaky toy (sound),” said Wells.

A pika gathers plants to add to its hay pile.
Ann Schonlau / NPS
A pika gathers plants to add to its hay pile.

Pikas also create hay piles made of neat stacks of grass and leafy plants. Megan Mueller, senior conservation biologist at Rocky Mountain Wild and co-director of the Pika Project, said they hoard their stashes under rocks for the winter months.

“There was a study in Southern Colorado that found that the average pika hay pile there was 60 pounds of fresh vegetation,” she said. “If you do the calculation about how many trips with mouthfuls of vegetation that is, it’s 14,000 trips to go out, collect a mouthful of flowers and plants, and put that in your hay pile for the winter. So pikas are pretty hard workers.”

Pikas like the cold environment, but as temperatures warm, their habitat and interactions with other animals are changing. Pika scientist and University of Colorado Boulder professor Chris Ray said a warmer alpine means other animals, like rodents, might move into pika territory and bring their diseases along.

That puts pikas at risk — even though they are not technically listed as an endangered species.

“We might have ways of helping pikas, as their environment deteriorates, we might have ways of sort of mitigating that through controlling diseases,” she said.

The Colorado Pika Project monitors specific sites across the state. After this training session, and throughout the summer, each volunteer in this group will go out on their own to look for pikas. Mueller said that has multiple goals.

“In addition to finding out whether pikas are disappearing from our sites, we’re also very interested in trying to figure out if they are starting to decline because of climate change, why is that?” she said.

Volunteers will gather data on the size of rocks pikas live between, the amount of grass nearby, and other characteristics of each site. They will submit what they find by the end of the summer. Then scientists like Ray use the results to determine what kinds of habitats lead to thriving pikas and what that means for the species overall.

“Data from this have recently gone into a paper in Nature Climate Change, for example,” she said to the group. “So your data are making a difference and an impact on the scientific world right now.”

After the volunteers finished looking for scat and hay piles, listening for squeaks and scanning for pikas, the group walked back to the parking lot.

Volunteers learn about pika signs in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Connor Mattes
Volunteers learn about pika signs in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Volunteer Abby Hughes said the surrounding mountain views are exactly why she signed up.

“I love being outside, I spend a ton of time in pika territory, so I see them on hikes and runs and things,” she said. “So, I just thought it was really interesting to learn a little bit more about them and see how they are being affected by climate change and how we can help monitor that.”

Although most of the group just learned about pika signs for the first time, co-director Megan Mueller has been working on this project for 10 years. She said it's about more than tracking the animals.

“We want to be able to predict what the impacts are going to be in advance, so that we have an ability to try to figure out strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change,” she said. “So we’re not particularly interested in just watching and seeing whether or not pikas disappear from our sites.”

Before the group wrapped up, Mueller and her team passed out supplies: baggies to collect scat, GPS units, and more. In the coming months, volunteers will use this gear to conduct their own pika surveys.

I am the 2021 American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellow at KUNC. My goal is to tell the true stories of science — and make them understandable and fascinating for all.
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