RBC I The pika, one of the cutest and toughest little critters in the Rockies, appears to be thriving throughout Colorado’s high country. While news stories have circulated recently that pikas are disappearing from the landscape, Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers have found populations 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,” explained Amy Seglund, a species conservation biologist for Parks and Wildlife.
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 pikas. The animals were found in more than 90 percent of those sites. In the spots where pikas were not found, the habitat was unsuitable.
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.
Pikas are hardy critters that weigh just four ounces. They spend the warm months gathering vegetation that will sustain them through the winter. Pikas do not hibernate.
A 1990 study showed that the average weight of their “haystacks” is 61 pounds; and that in a 10-week time period one pika will make 14,000 foraging trips – 25 per hour – to secure its food stash.
Still not impressed? Well, to sustain all that work, they must fill their bellies nine times a day to keep up their energy.
The news stories that stoked concern about the pika were based on 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.
Temperatures throughout the Mountain West certainly have been rising during the last 50 years, Seglund said. But the mountains in the Great Basin are much different than Colorado’s: they are at a lower altitude, provide limited contiguous habitat, receive less moisture and hold warmer temperatures.
In Colorado there’s more available habitat, more moisture and the summertime temperatures are cool enough for pika to thrive. The vast majority of the available habitat for pika 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.
In the summary of her study, Seglund wrote: “… Though the climate may be changing in the Southern Rocky Mountains, it currently appears that climate conditions in the state fall into the realm of temperature and precipitation cycles appropriate for maintaining healthy pika populations and distribution.”
Partly based on Seglund’s research, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the pika under the Endangered Species Act. Colorado Parks and Wildlife continues ongoing monitoring of pika populations and their habitats at 30 established sites around the state.
“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 … Colorado’s pika populations, for now, are in good shape.”