BLM Idaho wildlife biologists use pikas as climate change indicators

Story and photos by Bruce Hallman, Public Affairs Specialist

Allow me to introduce myself - I am a North American pika, Ochontona princeps. Although I look like a hamster, I am not even a rodent! My closest relatives are rabbits and hares. While I might look soft and cuddly, few animals are tough enough to live in the rugged high country that I call home. Pikas like me live in high mountain ecosystems that are cool and moist, just like my favorite mountains in central Idaho. Winters here stay below freezing for extended periods, but I don’t hibernate. The snow insulates my rock shelter. My species risks overheating in temperatures much above a human’s typical comfort zone. Unlike other mountain species that can move to higher altitudes in warming climates, our homes offer nowhere else for us to climb to. Trapped at the top, we are vulnerable to vegetation changes, the invasion of new pests and predators, loss of snowpack, and other effects of climate fluctuations.

A pika with its mouth open making an "eep!" call
Pikas’ calls may sound like "eep!" to human ears, but to a pika they have distinct meanings.
View from the top of the pikas' habitat- a rocky surface with mountains in the background.
The elevation where this scree made for good pika homes was over 8,000 feet.

With regard to the study of habitat change in Idaho, we pikas have an opportunity to rival polar bears as an indicator of long-term temperature trends. My pika family relatives have already disappeared from more than one-third of their previously known habitat in the neighboring states of Oregon and Nevada.

Thankfully, our plight has not gone unnoticed by some watchful wildlife biologists within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). And since the BLM Idaho data is scant, the research these biologists are conducting can help humans understand climate change effects for not only pikas, but for other species as well. For the past few years, Salmon Field Office Wildlife Biologist Sara Morelli and Challis-Salmon Fire Ecologist Hannah Alverson, along with others, have trekked up to exposed rocky areas in hopes of watching us. They’ve found us living in talus slopes and they learned that the rocks help regulate the ambient temperature, so that we are cooler in summer and insulated from the cold by snowpack in winter.

Group of people standing around with binoculars looking for pikas
Sara Morelli (left) and Hannah Alverson (pointing) help volunteers find pikas among the rocks.
Pika in the rock fields
Pikas are hard to spot in the rock fields!

These clever BLM folks survey talus slopes at different elevations to see if pikas have been there. “Current presence” is what they call seeing or hearing pikas or seeing our current hay piles - the vegetation we gather in the summer and store to eat in the winter. “Past presence” is determined by seeing fecal pellets among the rocks. “Absence” means that there is no evidence (past or present) of pikas. By surveying different elevations, the BLM folks can see a trend of current/historical pika presence over an elevational gradient. It also reduces human workload because they don't have to look at every talus slope capable of supporting pikas—they just have to survey those at the elevations they're interested in. More data on pikas will help more informed management moving forward. 

Hannah Alverson bending down next to the plants that are used by pikas for food.
Hannah Alverson identifies the plants that are used by pikas for food.
A current hay pile of vegetation in between the rocks
A current hay pile of vegetation being stashed by pikas for winter usage.

Over the past few years, researchers from Montana State University and Idaho Department of Fish and Game have been gathering data about our currently occupied and abandoned habitats. Additional visits from BLM biologists to pika habitats will help researchers collect baseline monitoring information for pika within the field office and add to those numbers. Their preliminary data indicates that my pika family members are leaving lower elevation sites. As BLM-administered land use is considered for grazing, recreation, or wilderness, having this data will help inform the analysis for different land management activities. It's good to know that so many people are paying attention to us and working together to understand our natural world a little better!