Last month, I spent hours wandering around the Hoodoos (an area of fantastical rock formations south of Mammoth Hot Springs) in Yellowstone in search of my favorite little alpine dweller, the pika. Pikas are small, intrepid lagomorphs that survive in harsh alpine environments and can actually die from overheating. I am always enchanted by watching pikas as they scurry across the rocks carrying grass to cure as hay for winter forage. Although I frequently heard their cheerful chirping during my wanderings, the “rock rabbits” or “boulder bunnies” as they are nicknamed, dashed into their dens too fast for me to catch a good glimpse.
My friend and co-worker Jennifer had more luck this past weekend. Indeed, she captured in a photo one of those once-in-lifetime wildlife-watching moments that we naturalists all wish for on our explorations. Although this is a little less dramatic than the recent photos of the grizzly bear chasing the bison in Yellowstone that went viral on the web recently, it’s no less remarkable. (Yes, I understand that a pine marten does not inspire the nightmarish visions that a grizzly bear running full speed down the road trying to eat a bison does, but martens and pikas are cool!)
Pine marten and pika in the Hoodoos, Yellowstone (Photos by Jennifer Mast)A sighting of either a pine marten or a pika alone is enough for calling it a day—so discovering a pine marten carrying its recently killed meal of a pika rates high on the “pretty rare and darn lucky” wildlife watching scale. Pine martens, a member of the weasel family, are adept climbers who usually prey upon squirrels and chipmunks. Well-camouflaged and extremely fast, martens are difficult to view in the wild. Likewise the pika, as its grey color blends in well with the boulder fields the animal calls home.
Warming temperatures from climate change have threatened the pika in many areas. In the Sierra Nevada, the pika is moving up the mountains trying to escape the heat and will eventually run out of range. Studies in the Great Basin have shown the pika disappearing from prime habitat in just a decade. For more information read my past blog entry: A Plea for the Pika.
The Intrepid--And Pretty Darn Cute--Pika (Photo Courtesy Earthjustice)Hiking in the high mountains provides many rewards; one such absolute joy for me is hearing the cheerful chirping of the pika and seeing the dainty creature scurry across boulder fields.
Climate change and environmental degradation, however, threaten the existence of this small animal. Last year I wrote about the plight of the pika and the attempts of the non-profits Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity to place the animal on the endangered species list through ongoing lawsuits.
Early this month both groups scored a victory with a settlement requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the pika for protection under the Endangered Species Act.The pika now becomes the first mammal in the lower 48 to be considered for endangered species status because of the impacts of global warming.
As Greg Loaris, an attorney for Earthjustice noted in a recent press release: “The pika’s shrinking habitat is a harbinger of what may happen to many species if we don’t address global warming now. With this settlement, we are hopeful that the new administration will take this issue seriously."
Pika on Rock (NPS Library)Last summer my good friend, the naturalist Jack Laws, joined me for a hike up to the Dana Plateau in Yosemite, one of my favorite places on earth. The rock filled plateau resembles a Martian landscape and presents an ancient geologic wonderland—the high alpine basin remained untouched by recent glaciations, and as a result, offers a rare glimpse of a landscape 25 million years old.
The oddly shaped granite boulders that inhabit the area act as aged sentinels who have endured an eon of winds, rains, snows, and sun that have shaped their unique character. Mount Dana and its glacier also stand watch over the plateau and the adjacent Glacier Canyon. The entire area transports the visitor back to a prehistoric time—indeed, during my visits I would not have been surprised to observe a pterodactylus extending its enormous wings as it soared over the cerulean waters of Dana Lake.
Dana Plateau, Yosemite National ParkYet for all the beauty created by the giganticness of the sweeping plateau and its imposing granite peaks, my favorite sight amidst this landscape is a small furry creature less than eight inches long who scrambles among the rock piles largely unnoticed.
Observant hikers (and those lucky enough to have the company of such a gifted naturalist as Mr. Laws) can encounter the American pika (ochotona princeps ) in rocky terrain at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California, and New Mexico. The Dana Plateau, with a landscape dominated by talus, provides the ideal habitat for these small lagomorphs, also fondly referred to as rock rabbits, boulder bunnies, or whistling hares.
On a warm summer day in August, Jack and I stopped on the east slope of the plateau and sat on a large boulder, quietly and patiently scanning the terrain for signs of the pika. In the direction of Mono Lake, a large cumulonimbus cloud rose into the heights of the blue sky, its white arms extending into an anvil shape, a telltale sign of an imminent thunderstorm. Very soon after our arrival, we heard the unmistakable high-pitched chirping of the pika—appropriately, its name may be a derivative of the Russian word pikat, meaning, “to squeak.”
Pika in Yellowstone (NPS Library)Despite the impending storm nearby, Jack opened his sketchbook and began capturing the pika with his talented artist’s hand. We both watched, delighted, as one pika harvested a stalk of lupine and carried it between his incisors back to his rockpile home. Pikas do not hibernate, but collect various grasses, shrubs, and lichen, place the food into the sun to dry, and then stash it into a “haystack” for winter consumption. The nimble and deft pikas have also been known to loot their neighbors’ haystacks.
For me, watching the rabbit-like pika scurry over talus fields is as essential to the beauty and character of the high alpine landscape as the requisite towering peaks. Sadly, the cheerful chirping of the pika may soon disappear from the high country as the effects of climate change have already reduced their numbers. Rising temperatures have diminished the already small islands of habitat for the cold-loving pikas (who can perish from overheating) and have pushed them higher up the range. If temperatures continue to increase, even the highest elevations may no longer provide a home for the pikas and the species may be threatened to the point of extinction.
Pika Eating Grass (NPS Library)Erik Beever, a USGS ecologist who co-authored a 2003 study of the species funded by the World Wildlife Fund, commented in a recent article in ENN:
"Population by population, we're witnessing some of the first contemporary examples of global warming apparently contributing to the local extinction of an American mammal at sites across an entire eco-region."
His study found that pikas had vanished from seven of the twenty-five sites he had surveyed over a ten-year period in Nevada, California, and Oregon.
The World Wildlife Fund is continuing to provide grants for further pika research. Dr. Lara Hansen, a senior scientist with World Wildlife Fund Climate Change Program underscored the severity of the issue, "American pikas may unfortunately be the 'canary in the coal mine' when it comes to the response of alpine and mountain systems to global warming. Their disappearance is an indication that our heavy reliance on polluting fossil fuels is causing irreparable damage to our environment. We must make the switch to clean renewable energy resources like wind and solar now before it's too late."
Sketch by Jack Laws of Pika on Dana Plateau Donald Grayson, an archaeologist with the University of Washington, also published a study on pikas in a recent issue of the Journal of Biogeography . "Pikas are an iconic animal to people who like high elevations," he said. "They are part of the experience. What's happening to them is telling us something about the dramatic changes in climate happening in the Great Basin. Climate change will have a dramatic effect including important economic impacts, such as diminished water resources, on people."
Grayson notes that the Beever and Patton survey showed an increase of 1,700 feet in elevation in the range of the pika in Yosemite National Park. Today, pikas can be found only over 9,500 feet in Yosemite; in 1910, their range extended to as low as 7,800 feet.
These alarming trends have spurred environmental groups into action. Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity have partnered to petition federal and state agencies to list the American pika as an endangered species. Although the initial request was refused, another suit was recently filed in October.
You can watch a video on pikas from Earthjustice below:
Although thunder began echoing off the surrounding granite peaks during our pika viewing, Jack and I remained in our observation seats, captivated by the movements of the hamster-like creature, who has managed to survive in an incredibly harsh environment despite its vulnerable appearance. I am grieved at the thought that our irresponsible environmental behavior may drive this intrepid creature to extinction.
As much as I cherish the magnificent granite peaks, glacial lakes, and spectacular views of the Dana Plateau, something will be irrevocably lost from the intrinsic character of the land and from the delight of my experience if one of the smallest inhabitants of its landscape disappears and if when hiking through the talus fields I no longer hear the sunny chirping of the pika.