Pikas in Colorado

The American pika is a small member of the rabbit family that inhabits alpine regions of the western U.S. and southwestern Canada. In spite of concerns that some pika populations in the Great Basin are dwindling, researchers in Colorado say this state’s pika numbers presently are in good shape.

Sometimes, being cute just isn’t enough.

Just ask the pika, that fist-sized bundle of fur with the high-pitched whistle we usually see more than hear in high-altitude haunts.

There’s a distinct concern among some scientists that climate change and subsequent higher temperatures in some mountain areas may eventually doom the American pika.

However, a recent study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers have found pika populations healthy and well-distributed throughout Colorado’s mountains.

“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 Montrose-based species conservation biologist for Parks and Wildlife.

Seglund and her crew in 2008 conducted a major research project to determine the health of pika populations in Colorado, only two years prior to when many expected the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the pika on the endangered-species list.

Thanks in part to Seglund’s research, that listing never came.

Seglund said her crews investigated 62 historical pika locations across the state and found the furry mammals in more than 90 percent of those sites.

The habitat was unsuitable at the only site where pikas weren’t found.

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,” Seglund said.

These “leprechauns of the high country,” as they once were called by outdoor photographer Leonard Lee Rue III, are alpine residents and are intolerant of even short-term hot temperatures.

They don’t hibernate but remain active all winter, depending on tunnels carved through deep snows to reach their caches of dried plants stored during the summer.

According to Parks and Wildlife, a 1990 study showed the average weight of pika “haystacks” is 61 pounds, and in a 10-week period one pika will make 14,000 foraging trips (25 per hour) to secure its food stash.

The snows provide more than protective cover; if the snow is deep enough, it provides insulation for the pikas living below. Too little snow, as is happening in some mountain areas, and the pika may freeze.

A project in Nevada’s Great Basin in 2003 proposed global warming as the likely cause of the loss of some pika populations in the Great Basin.

Seglund agreed that temperatures throughout the Mountain West certainly have been rising during the past 50 years, but she noted the mountains of the Great Basin are much lower and receive less moisture than the mountains of Colorado.

In Colorado there is more available habitat, more moisture, and the summertime temperatures are cool enough for pikas to thrive.

The vast majority of the available habitat for pikas in Colorado is on high-elevation public land that is not heavily impacted by roads, grazing and other human activity.

With few human activities nearby, pika habitat won’t be subject to fragmentation, which disturbs natural connections between populations.

“The suggestion that pika were in trouble in the West is what spurred our research,” Seglund said. “This was a very important study that helped us establish a clear picture of the current state of pika populations.

“Global warming will present challenges for many animal species, but our study shows that Colorado’s pika populations, for now, are in good shape.”


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