Monitoring Climate and Pika in the Southern Rockies
If you are a hiker who visits the highest peaks of the West, you may have spotted pikas among the talus fields or heard their "eek" alarm call. Pikas look like small rabbits and are sometimes described as "terminally cute." The American pika lives among the most stunning scenery and most harsh conditions of North America - typically on mountains above 8000 feet elevation - from California to New Mexico and north into Canada.
Like polar bears, pikas gained attention as early indicators of the effects of climate change on wildlife. In the case of pikas it is not sea ice that they require, but mountain peaks that are cool in summer and have a blanket of insulating snow in winter - both of which are being altered by climate change.
The pika was recently proposed for inclusion on the list of endangered species, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that endangered status is not warranted at this time. Why? Because the scientific information about pikas is not yet clear. Pikas seem to be disappearing from some mountainous areas, but not from others. And in a few places, pikas confound conventional knowledge - they are found at low elevations and do well in the warmer temperatures.
Working with a network of agencies and citizen science pika monitoring projects around the West, this Climate and Pika Monitoring Project will help to clarify the effects of climate change on pikas. It will collect information that will be used by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, researchers, and other wildlife managers to evaluate the range-wide status of pika and make informed management decisions so that pikas continue to thrive.
Information about the pika population from the mountains of New Mexico is important not only for pika, but as a indicator of how climate changes are affecting other species. Since New Mexico is the southern-most extension of the Rocky Mountains, it would be expected that climate changes might be visible here earliest.
The project began as a citizen science project in the Pecos Wilderness, but sadly, this very challenging project turned out to be too challenging for volunteers. Use of citizen scientists was discontinued after 2012. Dangerous conditions from extreme drought, forest fires, and flash floods precluded data collection in 2013. In 2014, data collection resumed using professional biological technicians and Institute staff and a full set of baseline data was finally obtained.
- Advance the long-term survival of the American pika in the wild, with a focus on the Southern Rockies of New Mexico.
- Increase understanding of climate change effects in the Southern Rockies.
- Increase the knowledge of and appreciation for science, natural ecosystems, and natural resource management for the New Mexicans who participate or are interested in the project.
How does this project align with the Institute's values?
- Applied science - the project is essentially a monitoring project to test an hypothesis, in keeping with the principles of adaptive management. New Mexico is currently the southernmost known extent of the pika's range, suggesting that climate change impacts, if valid, would be seen here first. Protocols and statistical approach were developed by monitoring specialists at the National Park Service's Inventory and Monitoring Program. Date is being collected regionally, using the same protocol throughout.
- Collaboration - regional, multiple partners from government, educational and nonprofit sectors are pooling data.
- Impact - as noted above, the effects of climate change on pikas are not clear. Consequently, the need for listing pika as an endangered species is not clear. If pika are not endangered, then it is better to direct time, effort and funds to species that truly are endangered.
- The National Park Service - Pikas in Peril Program and individual parks.
- North American Pika Consortium
- Teton Science Schools
- Denver Zoo
- Craighead Institute
- University of Colorado at Boulder
- Colorado State University
- Mountain Studies Institute
- Rocky Mountain Wild
- The Center for Native Ecosystems
Accomplishments in the project to date
- Development of training materials, field manual, safety protocols.
- Development of the first maps of potential pika habitat in the Pecos Wilderness, created through photo interpretation.
- Identification of 400 randomly selected off-trail survey sites; development of route guides to navigate to these sites.
- Completion of surveys at 100+ sites in 2014.
Above: Team one of biological technicians collecting data in 2014 - long days, high elevations, lots of miles.
Below: Team two, Bill Morris (below, confronting boulders bigger than a truck) and Cathryn Wild.
Current Project Status
This is a long-term project, intended to examine changes over time in the pika abundance of the Pecos Wilderness.
With the completion of the 2014 effort, we now have baseline data on the pika population in the Pecos Wilderness. Of the 104 sites surveyed, 57 were occupied by pika and 47 were not. The lowest stratum, stratum 1, had 12 occupied sites, while each of the higher three strata had 15 occupied sites.
But baseline data collection was only the first step. No previous data set exists on the abundance of pika so we can’t make comparisons or say that the population is stable, increasing or declining—yet. That was, in fact, the point of obtaining this baseline data. Now that we know what proportion of sites were occupied in 2014, we can compare the proportions in future years and determine whether the pika population is changing. Changes in a particular stratum will indicate whether it is changing at any particular elevation more than the others. This will help to determine whether changes in precipitation amount or form (for example rain instead of snow), or warming temperatures are affecting the pika.
A repeat of the monitoring of all 104 sites will occur at 5 and 10 year intervals. Adjustments to this schedule will be made in the event of fires, floods or other conditions unsafe for surveyors.
In the meantime, it appears that pika are still plentiful and well-distributed throughout the expected range in the Pecos Wilderness. Vernon Bailey, a naturalist who worked extensively in New Mexico in the early 1900’s, described pika as found only at 3300 meters and up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They are still present at or near this elevation.