EAGLE COUNTY — According to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife study, pika populations appear to be thriving in the high country — not dwindling in numbers as some reports have suggested.
The little critters — furry cousins of the hare and rabbit weighing in at just about 4 ounces — are generally hard to spot. They do, however, give out a distinctive call and can “throw” their voices.
“They’re hard to see. They’re camouflaged and small, and you probably have heard more than seen them,” said Joe Lewandowski, Colorado Parks and Wildlife public information officer for the southwest region.
News stories during the past couple years and research conducted in 2006 raised concerns that the Rocky Mountains’ cutest denizens were being forced out of their habitat and dying out due to rising temperatures. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were even considering listing the pika under the Endangered Species Act. However, Colorado Parks and Wildlife studies published a few years ago seem to show otherwise within the state.
Researchers have found populations are well distributed throughout Colorado’s mountains in high elevation areas. They generally live at elevations above 10,000 feet but have been found as low as 9,000 feet.
“In their primary habitat, mainly at and above timberline where there is lots of talus, we find pikas almost everywhere we look,” said Amy Seglund, a species conservation biologist for Parks and Wildlife based in Montrose.
Seglund conducted a major research project to determine the health of pika populations in Colorado in 2008. Her field crew surveyed 62 historical locations across the state to determine the presence of pika, and they found the animals in more than 90 percent of those sites. Study areas included a spot in eastern Eagle County and some in Summit County, Grand County and Garfield County.
Since the original surveys were completed, more than 900 occupied sites have been documented by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“We were even finding them in these little talus areas and at lower elevations where I never guessed pika would have lived,” she said.
Partly due to Seglund’s study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the pika as endangered.
Trouble in the West?
So why the alarm? Experts said that the concern originated from a research project in Nevada’s Great Basin in 2003 that stated that global warming was the likely cause of the extirpation of some pika populations in the Great Basin.
Seglund’s study, however, points out that the Nevada mountains are very different from Colorado’s, where there is more moisture, cooler temperatures and more high-elevation habitat that is relatively undisturbed by roads or other human impact.
In short, while the climate may indeed be changing in the southern Rocky Mountains, Colorado’s conditions are still conducive to pika.
“This is a picture of what’s happening now,” Lewandowski said. “Climate change is a reality, and we can’t say what the tundra might look like 50-60 years from now, but for now Colorado’s pika population are doing well.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.