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Pika: The Alpine Poster Child for Climate Change

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A pika in its talus home. Photo: Karunakar Rayker

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

When Chris Ray got started studying pika, she could not have
anticipated that these small rabbit relatives would one day become a poster
child for climate change, which the species has, partly through the efforts of
the Center for Biological Diversity to get them on the Endangered Species
List. Because pika live mostly in
alpine environments, are sensitive to temperature, and are poor dispersers,
they are perhaps particularly vulnerable to increasing temperatures. In late August 2011 I joined Ray, a
research associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, at Emerald Lake in
Hyalite Canyon, near Bozeman,
Montana, where she has studied pika every year for the past 21 years.

Pika live in talus slopes, which are gullies of rock making
gray stripes down the otherwise evergreen-covered rises around the canyon. Ray is gone from her tent at the
campsite before 6:30 each morning, carrying equipment to the slopes, leaving
her husband and her four-year-old son asleep. By 7:30 I head off with two young research assistants to
join her. We call in to Ray and
she gives us GPS points for her location.
The first morning I go with them, it takes us a full hour to reach her. The rocks are piled up on each other
and unsteady. The angle is
steep. I'm rather obsessed with
the distinct possibility of breaking my leg, and exhausted when we reach our
destination, before the day's work, which Ray will continue without break until
six or seven p.m., has even begun.

Ray collects data about pika presence and absence at 100
control points in a study area that is overall two kilometers by three
kilometers. She also tracks
temperature throughout the year using “iButton” data loggers dispersed around
the talus. Using four different
ear positions and five colors of tags, Ray ear-tags pika annually—this summer
she tagged 45—thus recognizing their individuality, by which she can keep
track of their mortality. To date
she has tagged and tracked 625 unique pika; she has observed some individuals
as many as nine years in a row.

Pika are saucy little bunnies, and they spend all summer “making hay while the sun shines,” because they don't hibernate. One of the main things they do is cache “haypiles” in the rocks. That
means they race around with flowers in their mouths much of the time. These
little bunnies take the Goldilocks syndrome very far, with finely tuned
sensitivity to hot and cold. While
other animals have natural thermoregulatory responses to temperature
fluctuations, the pika have to deal with these behaviorally. They don't hibernate, so they need a very
insulating fur coat, which is good in winter, but in the summer it becomes a
problem. To help deal with the
winter chill, the resting body temperature of a pika is near its lethal
maximum, which is what makes them intolerant to summer heat. Pika have to be out working hard all
summer to collect enough food to last them all winter, and during the hottest
part of summer days they take refuge in the spaces under the rocks in the
talus.

While many have written the end story for pika by pointing
upward and finding nowhere for them to go as the climate warms, Ray has in the
back of her mind another idea. She
wonders if what makes pika so sensitive and evidently vulnerable will wind up
being their salvation. “Pikas are
so good at finding the microclimate they need that they may avoid climate
change altogether,” she says. Although that depends on a fairly stable mountain ecosystem.

CLIMATE CHANGE ALSO RISES
“I'm sorry you have to read this,” Shaye Wolf says to me, referring to a 34-page document with the catchy title “Endangered and Threatened
Wildlife and Plants; 12-Month Finding on a Petition to List the American Pika
as Threatened or Endangered.” Wolf
is a biologist in the climate change program of the Center for Biological
Diversity (CBD), a pugnacious non-profit devoted to enjoining the federal
government to protect species and their habitats under the Endangered Species
Act (ESA). In 2007, EarthJustice attorney Greg Loarie helped CBD petition both the State of California and the
U.S. to list the pika. They have
been denied nationally but are still battling at the state level.

Indeed the document is a slog, veering back and forth
between seeming admissions that the pika is in danger of extinction, citing
evidence of “the disappearance of populations at relatively lower elevations
and hotter sites…” and then conversely asserting, “We do not anticipate the
species to be adversely affected on a range-wide basis by increased summer
temperatures….” The U.S. Fish and
Wildlife (FWS) authors of the report end up turning down the petition not based
on either observation, but by drawing a line in the sand. CBD had provided papers from three sets
of scientists—including Scott Loarie, Greg Loarie's brother—who project
higher temperatures and shrinking ranges for pika through 2100. The FWS response was that they could
use climate projections that go only through 2050.

Chris Ray is not a big fan of using the Endangered Species
Act as a lever against climate change; like other scientists, she worries that
this is a stretch of its purview and deploying it might make the Act more
vulnerable to weakening by hostile members of Congress. But she is not happy about this claim
of the FWS that there is some cut-off point after which climate projections
can't be considered, and calls it a “sleight of hand.”

In February 2011 I attended a pika consortium in Riverdale,
California. Much of the discussion
devolved around streamlining a way
to collect pika pellets to better quantify presence-absence data. There is also discussion about the best
way to anesthetize pika, which have a habit of dying when you look at them
cross-eyed.

An affable, white-haired man ran around the conference room
distributing papers. “This is so
great,” he says. “Forty years ago
I had nobody to talk with about pika.” Andrew Smith, the senior statesman of pika, is active in conservation
efforts to halt mass extermination of Tibetan pika in Asia. When it is his turn to speak he
admonishes the other researchers in the room to be super-transparent and
value-free when communicating their work to the public. “Another plea,” he says. “There is a photograph of a pika at the
California Academy of Sciences. The caption says the animal dies when the temperature reaches 78
degrees. The general public now
thinks all pika die when the temperature reaches 78! But that's based on my study, as you know, and anybody who
reads it knows I placed pika in cages and didn't let them move. The public does not know this!”

Later, Smith beckons me. “I have
things to tell you,” he says. We
chat. “How could you fry those
bunnies?” I ask him. He makes a
very sad face. “Oh God, it was the
'70s. We didn't know what we were
doing. I would never do that
again.”

Then Smith tells me the
FWS contacted him to comment on the petition to list the pika. “I said, 'You bet I want to comment.'
But I was in Tibet and I couldn't do it in their time frame. So they waited for me. I missed the deadline, so my comments
are not in the public record, but they heard me.” We chat about how Smith hates the CBD. “Did you see that guy?” Smith asks me. That would be Scott Loarie, who had Skyped into the meeting. “His
brother is the lawyer on this so I'm totally outflanked.”

“I think those two are trying to save
nature,” I say. “Oh, I guess so,”
he avers. “Do you have trouble
with the computer modeling?” I ask. “Yes!” he says.

In his response to the pika petition, Smith slams Scott
Loarie's climate modeling work but according to different terms than those upon
which it was written: namely that
it “cites no papers concerning the biology of the species and fails to list any
of the restrictive assumptions of the climate-envelope model utilized … it would
be in error to put too much emphasis on a document of this nature.” I can just feel a whole bunch of
biologists wincing as I type those words. In fact, of course, the computer models do incorporate the biology of
the species. Their starting point
and center point are exactly what Smith says they ignore. While yes, pika may find refugia for a
time, at a certain point there will be no refugia. The coolness in the talus will be warmer. Smith is refusing the future scenario,
and he handed the FWS a respected scientist's excuse to refuse it, too. And off the record, to boot.

Excerpted from The Spine of the Continent: The Most Ambitious Wildlife Conservation Project Ever Undertaken, by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Copyright © 2012, by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. Reprinted by permission.

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