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(Some) Pika Persist at Low Elevations

Photo courtesy of the Forest Service.

Photo: US Forest Service

American Pika are living at lower elevations and surviving warmer temperatures than previously thought, according to a paper in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research (available for download at the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station’s site).

One of the authors, Connie Millar, said she saw pika far more often and in a broader elevation range than she had expected she would. Millar, a Forest Service ecologist, found all those pika using a method she developed to quickly determine if pika are living in places where one would expect to find them.

Pika, cute little rabbit relatives that live in high elevations throughout the West, have been in the news lately. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned for the pika to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2007, citing climate change as a threat to survival of the cold-adapted species. Last month, under a new administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to protect the pika, explaining that though some populations do seem to be in trouble, most are doing fine so far. (Climate Watch has followed the pika story; see previous posts here, here, and here).

This newest study would seem to support the federal decision. But Shaye Wolf, staff biologist with the CBD, says that though the study “provides a snapshot of where pika are now, long-term in-depth studies have found that pika populations are declining.”

The majority of those declining populations are in Nevada’s Great Basin, at relatively low elevations for pika colonies. One paper Wolf cites was recently published in Ecological Applications. Authors Erik Beever and Chris Ray concluded that shrinking pika populations in the Great Basin could be partially attributed to climate change. Pika have an extremely narrow band of temperature tolerance and can suffer heat stroke in temperatures comfortable to humans.

Wolf and Millar are both members of the California Pika Consortium, a newly formed research group. Millar plans to distribute her pika survey to colleagues in the consortium in order to continue gathering data on locations of pika colonies.

Meanwhile, even though the Fish and Wildlife Service has denied federal protection to the pika, CBD is still working on gaining state-level protection in California. CBD biologists consider the pika to be a bellwether species for climate change.