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Pika on the Move

By Jack McKinney, Resource Conservation major, Wildland Restoration minor
Thursday, August 18, 2011

American Pika (Ochotona princeps), Glacier National Park.  Photo by Minden Pictures/SuperStock 4201-64653“I found some pika pellets!”  I yelled in excitement.  We were at Hidden Lake on top of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park looking for pikas: a small cousin of the rabbit.  We had been participating in a citizen scientist program through the National Park Service.  The NPS has been studying pikas in Glacier National Park, trying to understand how climate change will affect the pika.  We spent a few hours that morning with Nickolas Liu-Sontag, the High Country Citizen Science Project Coordinator, discussing habitat and life cycles.

Pikas live in alpine environments, high on mountain slopes where the they have adapted to life in cold weather.  During the summer, they collect grass and flowers and store them in piles called haystacks for the winter.  Because of their dense fur coat, pikas are extremely susceptible to overheating in the warm summer months.  An increase of three degrees Centigrade could possibly drive them to migrate higher up the mountain or go extinct.  However, they already live high on the slopes in talus fields and sometimes have nowhere to go. Blogger Jack shows off the pika pellets he found.  Photo by Nicky Phear.

We had been at the talus field looking for pika presence for only about ten minutes before we saw our first sighting.  The pika we saw was scrambling around on the rocks collecting grasses, going back and forth from the fields to his cave.  What struck me most about the day was the extremeness of the pika’s habitat.  They live in talus fields, often times below cliffs.  If temperatures did rise to a level where the pika had to migrate, some would have nowhere to go.  Pika were almost placed on the endangered species list, but because of different views of their adaptability, they were not placed on the list.  For me, a major question remains; is it worth the risk?