Described by scientists on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Field Guide as “the cutest mammal,” the American Pika is a tiny, rabbit-like animal with round, Mickey Mouse like ears, a thick, a furry coat and no tail. The small creature has evolved in a singular way, to carve a niche in rocky alpine terrain, often above the tree line. Pikas have adapted to survive in frigid climates where most mammals can’t – but they can perish in as few as six hours of 77-degree temperatures.
Because of the animal’s vulnerability to heat, the National Park Service says that the charismatic indicator species may become extinct by the end of the century. The reason? Climate change. Like the polar bear, which is losing its ice sheets, pikas are losing their snow cover.
Trapped at the top of their habitat, in the coldest areas of the west, there is nowhere for pikas to retreat as the weather warms. In 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wild life Service to list the American Pika as threatened by climate change. “Despite clear scientific evidence that the pika is threatened with extinction by global warming,” says CBD, the request was turned down in 2010.
In a paper published in the journal Mammology, researcher Eric Beever and colleagues surveyed more than 910 locations in western North America during 2013 and 2014, complementing earlier modern (1994 – 2013) and historic (1898 – 1990) surveys. “In each region,” the paper said, “we found widespread evidence of distributional loss” – including the complete absence of the animal.
In an ongoing research program called “Pikas in Peril” the National Parks Service is also studying the species, in this case in eight national parks. One population is located in a rocky talus slope at Crater Lake National park in Oregon. Because pikas already occupy the highest available habitat at Crater Lake, they cannot shift to higher elevations.
There is hope, however, for at least one pika population. While pika numbers are crashing in many places, some colonies live in the Columbia Gorge, just a few hundred feet above sea level. The gorge pika is one of the most accessible populations anywhere. Living in rocky talus slopes of the gorge, the gorge pika survives under the insulating rock in a cool, 45-degree microclimate. Their complex world is not yet fully understood, but they are evolving to live on the moss and other plants growing in the gorge.
These gorge pika have their own fans, a group of citizen scientists known as the Cascade Pika Watch. Using special apps for recording pika sightings, the Watch is committed to recording these tiny creatures to raise awareness and document their lives.
This year, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (OFW), which lists pikas’ status as “sensitive,” has included them in its updated species conservation strategy for species in decline. Released in September the plan identifies “data gaps” in the understanding of pikas to include “distribution, abundance, and trends,” and sets the goal of “[improving] understanding of potential climate change impacts on predation, competition, and foraging dynamics” by improving its monitoring efforts and attempting to identify isolated populations.
OFW spends about 2% of its budget on conservation.
Center for Biological Diversity says it intends to request that pikas be listed as endangered again.
Gail Warner and Helen Caswell