Scientists are concerned that global warming could be forcing the pika, a rabbit relative that resembles a hamster, to flee its alpine habitat around Silverton, the same as it's doing in other places across the western United States.
A University of Colorado doctorate candidate will study the San Juan Mountains around Silverton this summer to see how the pika is faring.
"I've found pikas in eight historic habitats around Silverton, unlike places in northern Colorado or Wyoming where it has disappeared," Liesl Peterson, a University of Colorado at Boulder graduate student, said Tuesday in a telephone interview. "This summer I'll count pikas to see if their population is declining."
At stake is possible protection of pikas under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - in response to a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice - is supposed to decide by May if it will consider protecting the pika as an endangered species. If the answer is yes, a full review would take place, with a final decision slated for February 2010.
Peterson, a doctorate candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology, began her pika research in 2007 and will finish up in 2011.
What she learns could support or stand in contrast to what other researchers have learned in Nevada, Oregon, California and Utah.
In those states, pikas have disappeared from spots they were known to inhabit in the early 1900s, Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, said by telephone last week. The disappearance of the pika in those locales has been noted as late as the mid-1990s to mid-2005, Wolf said.
Wolf said one-third of the pika population from last century could be gone.
Environmentalists say that the pika, which live in rocky outcroppings at 9,000 elevation and above, are losing their habitat because of warming temperatures. The heavy coat of the pika makes it extremely vulnerable to heat stroke at relative low temperatures.
"A study in California found that pikas will die within a few hours at 78 degrees Fahrenheit," Wolf said. "If there is no new habitat upslope, they're not good at moving."
Action is long overdue since the federal agency was to have given its initial response in August 2008, Wolf said.
Peterson's research will contribute information on pika populations from Santa Fe, N.M., to Laramie, Wyo., as well as all the southern Rockies and the San Juans. The Colorado Division of Wildlife is trying to establish a long-term pika-monitoring program.
"The pika is an alpine animal that needs cooler habitat," Peterson said. "My work could show whether the pika population will hold or is on the verge of going."
Koren Nydick, director of the Mountain Studies Institute with offices in Silverton and at Fort Lewis College, said Peterson's project is important. The institute contributed $2,500 to the study.
"We don't know if the pika is losing range in the San Juans," Nydick said. "Since the pika is disappearing in the Great Basin, it's easy to ask if the same trend is happening here."
Nydick said an idea in the formative stages is to get institute volunteers to collect pika scat for analysis. Peterson said the analysis would involve DNA. Fresh pika scat contains a hormone that indicates if the pika is under stress, she said.