Letters from the West

Study: Loveable pika likely will survive warming in Craters of the Moon

Pikas are often seen as an extinction threat from climate change, but a new study says they likely will survive.
Pikas are often seen as an extinction threat from climate change, but a new study says they likely will survive. National Park Service

A recent study by the National Park Service offers good news for one of the species that has become a measure of the threat to biodiversity posed by global warming.

The study shows that the American pika, that loveable little rock-dwelling lagomorph with a high-pitched alarm whistle, is likely to survive, even thrive, in several national parks and monuments, including Craters of the Moon. A relative of rabbits and hares, the pika usually lives in alpine environments with rock fields, like Idaho’s Sawtooths and Yellowstone National Park.

But pikas have been thriving in Craters of the Moon, the high-desert Snake River Plain near Arco dominated by 2,000- to 15,000-year-old lava flows, caves and fissures. Pika numbers are projected to drop, but not wink out.

In most of the rest of their high-elevation range, pikas live only in talus — broken rock on steep mountainsides and at the bases of cliffs. In these piles of scree, the little creatures with thick fur coats find refuge from high temperatures of 77 to 85 degrees, which they can’t tolerate.

Although it’s not an alpine setting, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve’s lava structures were filled with pikas where the physical complexity of the lava structures provide thermal “microrefugia,” cooler places that pikas like.

The new study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, used species distribution models for eight National Park Service areas in the Western United States and forecast pika distribution 30, 60 and 90 years into the future, based on expected climate change scenarios.

The Pikas in Peril research project, funded by the National Park Service, was launched in 2010 to determine how vulnerable the animals are to climate change in the eight national park units.

“If you look at the overall picture, the amount of suitable habitat will decline and temperatures will warm in most of these national parks,” said Donelle Schwalm, an Oregon State University researcher who led the study. “But many of these sites have areas that are colder, higher and sometimes wetter than other areas, and pikas should do quite well there.”

In Yellowstone, pikas are projected to go extinct as temperatures warm because of the loss of habitat and the loss of connectivity with other populations. Craters of the Moon has a high-desert climate, with average high temperatures during the summer around 80 degrees and average low temperatures in the winter in the teens.

The key to the pika’s projected survival is that its flat lava flows connect to the Pioneer Mountains, the southern edge of the northern Rockies. From there, the pikas have been biologically connected all the way to British Columbia, the northern edge of their habitat today.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

About the American pika

Scientific name: Ochotona princeps

Size: 8 inches, 4 to 6 ounces

Color: Brown with black specks

Range: British Columbia south to California and east to Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico

Habitat: Broken rock, or talus, between 8,000 and 13,000 feet, and lava rock between 4,000 and 5,900 feet

Diet: Green plants that the pika gathers and stores in a “hay pile,” which can get as large as a laundry basket