Some people want to ring the alarm. Others want to mute it or perhaps turn it off entirely.
The cute little pika, according to at least one expert, needs no alarm. It can decide for itself when it’s time to rise and when it’s too hot to go about business.
As is the unfortunate trend, our little furry friend is caught up in the politics of global warming. People are human (for the most part), and so it’s possible they’re allowing their biases to prevail when considering what to do about the pika.
If you love the pika – and how could you not – what is your best course of action? Do you study it? List it as endangered? Leave it alone?
With good reason, biologists are keeping tabs on the American pika. Weather data seem to indicate a warming trend on the planet, and there’s concern that effects of the increased heat will alter the living landscape. Will pikas, for instance, be forced higher and higher up the mountains until there’s no “higher” left?
So let’s check with a few people who have given this issue a lot of thought.
We’ll start with Amy Seglund, a species conservation biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Last week, Parks and Wildlife released results of a 2008 study indicating no cause for immediate alarm. Follow-ups continue to show stable populations.
“The 2008 survey data indicated pika populations are abundant and well-distributed throughout the state,” Seglund said in the “discussion” part of her study wrapup.
Her report uses terms such as “stochastic,” “vagility” and “philopatric.” And that’s just from one sentence. Much of it, fortunately, is in English. The gist is that at 62 sites where pikas have been found in the past, 58 still had plenty of creatures around, and only one site of suitable habitat had no sign of even past pika occupancy.
Parks and Wildlife will continue to monitor 30 sites statewide.
“Global warming will present challenges for many animal species,” Seglund said in a news release last week, “but our study shows that Colorado’s pika populations, for now, are in good shape.”
OK, so what spurred the concern in the first place? The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona, in 2007 petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect American pika habitat by listing it as threatened or endangered.
“Just as importantly,” it says on its website, “the species’ protected status would be a strong call to action against global warming.”
That listing was denied in a February 2010 decision.
“However,” the federal decision notice said, “we ask the public to submit to us any new information that becomes available concerning the threats to the American pika, the five subspecies or its habitat at any time.”
Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco, told the Herald last month that pikas are disappearing in the Great Basin (Nevada and southern Oregon) because of drought and temperature.
“(Fish and Wildlife) thought there are enough of them, and that they have the capacity to adjust to climate change,” she said. “That, despite that their numbers are declining in the Great Basin.”
Andrew Smith, professor of conservation biology at Arizona State University, has been studying pikas professionally since 1969. He drives around with a pika finger puppet on his dashboard, and other pika memorabilia is scattered around his home.
“No one likes them better than I do,” he said in a phone interview Friday.
Smith, who has studied them from Colorado to California to China, knows that pikas are a vulnerable species. Their rate of reproduction is relatively low, and they don’t do well with high temperatures. (His experiments in the 1970s – which he emphasizes would no longer be allowed by a university review board – demonstrated a pika would die if exposed to 80-degree heat. That fact is often cited, but not always with the caveat that pikas usually have a shady respite nearby.) But he doesn’t think they’re endangered.
“I think pikas are much more resilient than we think they are,” he said from sizzling-hot Tempe, Arizona, where he’d just returned after a field stint in cooler climes.
They’re capable of adapting. They can gather hay piles during the cooler evenings or even at night, for one. Almost all the noted extinctions have occurred on small patches at relatively low altitudes, he said.
Still, it irked him when he saw public comments on the petition to list the pika as endangered that brought the politics of global warming into the debate.
“I don’t want it to ever be interpreted that I think climate change is not important or it’s not going to upset biotic interactions and communities,” Smith said. “But the pikas will probably still be here when we’re gone.”
The Mountain Studies Institute, which works out of Durango and Silverton, is in its fifth year of studying the pika. It trains citizen volunteers to spot and catalog pika at 44 sites in the San Juan Mountains.
Marcie Demmy Bidwell, the institute’s director, said the research was borne out of U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s statement that it would consider any new information that becomes available.
She said that there isn’t a need for alarm regarding the pika, but there are concerns, including a declining winter snowpack. Ironically, the pika could freeze to death in a warming climate because the snow provides an insulating layer. Lack of snow also means a dearth of water as the summer progresses.
They’re furry, they’re cute, they live in tranquil, scenic, alpine places. These lagomorphs – members of the rabbit family – speak with a high-pitched squeak that can reverberate off the talus slopes they inhabit.
What’s not to love about the American pika?
“Pikas are what we call ‘charismatic microfauna’ that people like to learn more about,” Bidwell said. “They are a good vehicle to motivate people to get outside and think about changes in our environment.”
Smith said that a lot of data already exist, but it’s helpful to continue to gather more. But he cautions his peers: Don’t make it up.
“If you make it up, people will find you out,” he said. “And then they’ll use this as an example that all the scientists are saying the wrong thing.
“And I think it’s counterproductive, which is I think a far worse sin in the big picture.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.