Columbia Gorge pika watchers mobilize for summer season

June 27, 2013 - 6:38pm

Zoo-supported citizen scientists to look and listen for climate change sentinel

Hike the Columbia Gorge this summer and piping from the rocks you might hear something that sounds like a squeak toy on steroids. It's the alarm call of the American pika alerting other pikas to your presence. To biologists, though, it's the absence of that call that's sounding the alarm.

The pika — an éclair-sized, unrelentingly cute cousin of the rabbit — is disappearing as its alpine habitat heats up, prompting a rush to understand how climate change affects the species across its range.

The challenge to researchers is one of accessibility: Pikas generally live on mountain slopes above 6,000 feet and only tolerate a strict "Goldilocks zone" combination of snow, temperature and habitat. But Columbia Gorge pikas dwell just 200 feet above sea level, making them the lowest-elevation pikas in the U.S.

"We don't fully understand why Columbia Gorge pikas have adapted to survive at such a low elevation," said David Shepherdson, Oregon Zoo deputy conservation manager. "But the fact that they do, and that they live in Portland's backyard, made them the perfect opportunity for a citizen science project."

This summer, the Oregon Zoo is deputizing volunteers of all ages in Pika Watch, a citizen science project aimed at studying changes in the Columbia Gorge pika population over the next five years.

Here's how it works: After taking a crash course in pika identification at the zoo, volunteers are quizzed to ensure they can distinguish pikas from similar-looking and sounding creatures. Then, armed with binoculars and GPS units, they head into the field to stake out pika hot spots, record their locations and listen for the telltale squeak. Finally, they upload their data to a website where it's analyzed by biologists.

To kick start the 2013 program, the Oregon Zoo has partnered with the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute to recruit Pika Watchers in the Hood River area, especially students in grade school through high school. The partnership is made possible by a grant from the Oregon Zoo Foundation's Future for Wildlife program.

"When these communities collect data, they're not only getting out and enjoying the region, they're also making an investment in the ecosystem," said Drew Eastman, executive director of the institute. "They're helping support the long-term sustainability of the Gorge."

Studies of similar volunteer programs in Montana have shown that with proper training, citizen science is an efficient tool for gathering reliable data. The extra help biologists receive from volunteers is critical to making timely population assessments. Other low-elevation pika populations have recently disappeared where they were observed less than a decade ago.

"That squeak is the sound of a healthy Columbia Gorge," Eastman said. "We hope to hear it for a long time."

The Cascades Pika Watch program is a collaboration of organizations and individual pika researchers convened by the Oregon Zoo. Learn more about how to get involved.