Pika : how much higher?

Updated October 7, 2013

The small rabbit-like mammal whose high-pitched ‘eeek’ greets hikers on the trail to Jasper’s Cavell meadows has recently been a bone of contention south of the border. It is all to do with climate change.

The pika (Ochotona princeps) has evolved to cope well with the cold temperatures of northern climates and higher elevations. It has a thick fur coat and – unlike its rabbit and hare cousins – has relatively small ears, short legs and virtually no tail: in other words no extremities susceptible to freezing. On the other hand these attributes put it at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to a warming climate.

In the States, they have disappeared from more than a third of their previously known habitats in Nevada and Oregon and other populations have moved nearly 300m upslope from where they were once found. For this reason the little animal became the centre of a battle in August 2008 when the Center for Biological Diversity together with Earthjustice took the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Fish and Game Commission to court with a view to listing the pika as an endangered species because of its suspected inability to cope with global warming. Discussions and studies dragged on for years but finally in May 2013 the state agency voted not to protect the pika under California’s Endangered Species Act. On the Federal level no progress was made at all.

One suspects that politics had a strong hand in this final decision not to list it as ‘endangered’ because this designation would require protection of the pika’s habitat and its protected status would be a strong call to action against climate change.

Description

Pikas live in northern areas of Europe and Asia and the mountains of central Asia. During the ice ages some crossed the Bering land-bridge to North America and settled in Alaska and mountainous areas further south. Some species of pika live in colonies but the one inhabiting the Rockies leads a solitary life outside of the breeding season.

This little bundle of grey-brown fur is well camouflaged in its rocky habitat. In fact the first indication of its presence will probably be its high-pitched squeak and even then it is difficult to locate because its squeak has a ventriloquial quality. It scurries around the jumbled boulders that form safe hiding places and vantage points. Once stationary on a rock this smallest member of the rabbit family looks like just another little outcrop or bump.

As you walk in pika habitat you may notice piles of grasses and wildflowers lying in sunny patches on the rocks: these have been left by the pikas to dry out and provide a supply of ‘hay’ for the coming winter. The pika does not hibernate but spends the winter months sheltered under the boulders of a talus slope living off the summer’s harvest. These hay piles are critical to its survival and it will fiercely defend both them and its territory against others of its species. Trips to its summer ‘hay field’ put it in danger of being taken by various predators – golden eagles, lynx, martens or wolverines. Even deep under the rocks it is not safe from the ermine or short-tailed weasel, which is slim and able to invade the pika runways.

Pika young – usually less than five – are born in May and sometimes there is a second brood later in the summer. However, as all the young have to be out and established in their own territories with hay piles by the time winter sets in the second brood rarely survives.

Tracking the Rockies high life.

The Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN) of Banff National Park have set up a programme to track the locations of High Elevation Localized Species (HELS) in the Rocky Mountain National Parks: the list of species includes mountain goats, ptarmigan, marmots, and pikas. With the help of BVN members and public individuals the programme is amassing baseline population distribution data about some species which are not currently being closely monitored and about which little is known. (Tracking the first and last sightings of marmots each year may contribute some interesting data on climate change.)

Jasper’s pikas

In Jasper National Park pikas can be found in many higher elevation areas with boulders and nearby grassy areas. They are fairly common in the Mount Edith Cavell area, particularly on the moraine flanking the side of the trail up to the meadows. There is even a small population at the north end of Medicine Lake. Last summer (2012), the lake overflowed and the pika habitat was under water for several weeks but they must have temporarily retreated higher into the rocks above the lake and certainly some were back in their old territory this past summer.

Conclusion

The rising summer temperatures of climate change force the pika to spend more time trying to keep cool under the rocks when it should be out collecting its supply of food for the coming winter. Added to that, a shallower winter snow pack leaves it with less insulation against the cold.

Life has never been easy for this little alpine species but now it may be getting a lot more difficult.