A pika forages for food in the Rocky Mountains
Photo by Glenn Nelson

Promise for the Pika

Story and photography by Glenn Nelson

If the polar bear ever needed relief as the stricken planet’s most preemptively mourned victim of ecological disaster, the American pika has stood with apparent readiness to accept the nomination. The diminutive, rock-dwelling cousin of the rabbit certainly delivers the cuteness factor. And, with a range in the Lower 48, it offers enhanced accessibility and, as any alpine hiker will attest, is eminently locatable by its distinctive warning call: “ Eep! ”

The American pika uses a short, distinctive call to defend its food cache or sound an alarm to predators.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

You want to save the pika as much as you want to cuddle with it.

Pikas neither hibernate nor migrate to circumvent climate extremes. Though thick-furred and having a high metabolism, pikas are slaves to Goldilocks-like conditions—not too hot and not too cold. They can die if exposed too long to temperatures as low as 77 degrees Fahrenheit, or freeze to death if not insulated by snowpack from winter’s worst.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a full-fledged, pika pity party: Once feared to be in danger of “blinking out,” as scientists like to say, the creature’s climate-change status is emerging as more nuanced—less “on the way out” and more “it depends.”

A recently released study, “Pikas in Peril,” should change the narrative. It offers what one of its authors, Tom Rodhouse of the National Park Service, calls a “glass-half-full” look at the plight of the animal also known as the “rock rabbit.”

In a way, the American pika may be saving us from ourselves.

“What concerns me is that people get fatigued by the perilous nature of the state of the world and need positive stories,” says Tara Chestnut, a wildlife ecologist at Mount Rainier National Park. “That is one of the outcomes of this project—that there are glimmers of hope.”

The pika spends about one-third of daylight hours above ground.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

Some of that glimmer falls upon Chestnut’s park, as well as North Cascades National Park. Chestnut and Jason Ransom, her North Cascades counterpart, are too scientifically inclined to make definitive pronouncements about the state of pikas. But both agree there are reasons to believe the pika will endure for the forseeable future.

They, along with Erik Beever of the U.S. Geological Survey, who has been at the fore-front of pondering pika persistence, hope to acquire funding for a study that will cast more light on the extent and distribution of local pika populations. The proposed study will, among other things, locate and assess the fine-scale refuges necessary to buffer pikas, as well as hoary marmots, from climate harshness.

Pikas already have exhibited resiliency. They populate complex lava flows in places such as Craters of the Moon in Idaho, where sub-surface ice can buffer surface temperatures as great as 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Pikas also are abundant, almost at sea level, in the Columbia River Gorge. There, moss provides both nutrition and stable insulation in broken-large-rock fields (or talus patches). And cool air and water flow, plus abundant shading, mitigate surface temperatures.

The American pika gained climate-change scrutiny largely because of its association with fields of broken rock in mountains. Those fields are fringed by vegetation, on which pikas directly feed or cache in haypiles (called “haying”) for cold-weather nutrition. As such, the furry creatures about the size of a medium baked potato spend about a third of daylight hours on the surface, and about half of that perched on rocks, in surveillance mode.

Pikas already have exhibited resiliency, adapting to extreme temperatures and changing habitats.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

It was long thought that pikas eventually would run out of altitude to which they could escape life-robbing heat. The emerging thinking now is that the key to their fate is the ability to move over landscape (i.e., connectivity) to other suitable habitat.

Beever believes Mount Rainier and North Cascades are close to “the sweet spot” for pika habitat. Pikas are found at lower elevations in northern U.S. mountain ranges than in the more sun-splattered south. The Cascades also likely will benefit from the cooling and other effects of marine precipitation.

Ransom points out that the North Cascades has a dynamic landscape, with abundant avalanches in fall and winter creating or revealing talus patches. The North Cascades is losing glaciers, which is a concern, but pika live there at both high elevations as well as low elevations, such as near Diablo Lake on the park’s west side or outside Lake Ann to the east.

“The breadth of their habitat in the North Cascades gives them a little bit of an edge,” Ransom said.

At Mount Rainier, Chestnut is in the midst of a 10-year pika habitat study. She says pikas are being found about everywhere you’d expect, from the trails around Pinnacle Peak, Spray Park, Stevens Canyon, South Puyallup River, Sunrise, Tolmie Peak and the Westside Road.

Not long ago, exploiting a gloomy picture is what passed for hope. The Center for Biological Diversity and its supporters were bitterly disappointed in 2010 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied a petition to protect the pika under the Endangered Species Act. The pika would have been the first animal from the Lower 48 states to be listed as endangered because of the effects of climate change.

Today, because the picture is more varied and complex—and highly dependent on where one looks—hope is in the eye of the beholder.

“Just looking at the map,” Chestnut says about Mount Rainier, “I’ve got a lot of pikas.”

  • Glenn Nelson

    Glenn Nelson founded The Trail Posse, a journalism project in partnership with High Country News, to document and encourage diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. A former journalist for both ESPN and The Seattle Times whose guest editorial in the New York Times attracted widespread attention, he’s a frequent guest speaker on the subject of race and the environment.