Study investigates 'extreme pikas' of Columbia Gorge

July 11, 2014 - 9:34am

Zoo-supported research explores unique population of climate change sentinels

Scientists may be a step closer to understanding one of the cutest enigmas in the Pacific Northwest: the mysterious Columbia Gorge pika.

With an assist from the Oregon Zoo Foundation's Future for Wildlife grant program, a U.S. Geological Survey study has enlisted technicians and more than 175 volunteers to scour the Columbia Gorge for these croissant-sized rabbit cousins, whose typically high-altitude habitat makes them vulnerable to climate change. Columbia Gorge pikas are the lowest-elevation pikas in the U.S.

The study aims to discover where these "extreme" pikas are – and aren't – living in the Columbia Gorge, and to understand what factors may dictate their distribution. The study will ultimately be used by citizen science groups to measure any future changes that may occur.

"This is not sampling – this is a true census," said U.S. Geological Survey researcher Erik Beever. "We're not so presumptuous as to say we're counting every pika in the Gorge. But we have walked literally every trail section and driven every non-private road under 1,000 meters in the Gorge, and surveyed for pikas at all patches on or visibly adjacent to those trails that could be safely surveyed."

The three-year study surveyed 50 miles of the Gorge on both sides of the Columbia River – from Troutdale to Hood River in Oregon, and from Camas to White Salmon in Washingon. To cover all that ground, Beever enlisted around 175 citizen scientists – including students and Gorge locals – with a core of five doing most of the work. The team also studied vegetation and deployed temperature and relative-humidity sensors to track variations in local climate that may impact whether or not a certain part of the Gorge is pika-friendly.

"There seems to be a certain goldilocks set of factors that allow the Gorge to support pikas at such a low elevation," said Beever. "It's never super hot or super cold, there's forage available year-round, and there's a massive vertical wall that provides shade throughout most of the day. We hope this study will teach us something about climate change resistance, but also how to conserve pikas on a local level."

According to Beever, data from the study will be used to inform any future conservation and management efforts, if active management becomes imminent.

Beever's study will conclude in September, when the team will retrieve their sensing equipment, but citizen-science pika surveys will continue. People interested in joining the effort should contact Cascade Pika Watch.

"Pika Watch is an ideal opportunity for people who love hiking and the outdoors to take action for wildlife," said David Shepherdson, Oregon Zoo deputy conservation manager. "When communities collect data through citizen science, they're making an investment in the ecosystem."