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Tiny pika points to big problem

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
The disappearance of the pika from its traditional habitat is an indicator of climate change, according to a wildlife biologist who will speak Thursday in Aspen. (Contributed photo)
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CARBONDALE ” Images of stately polar bears stranded on isolated, melting Arctic ice floes have become emblematic of the effects of global warming.

Another mammal ” much smaller but also an icon of its landscape ” faces a similar danger as that landscape withers under rising temperatures.

The pika, which lives in talus habitats in Colorado and other states, could disappear from much of that habitat in coming decades, according to a biologist who has been studying the animal.



Erik Beever, a Wisconsin resident who works for the National Park Service, spoke to about 35 people in an event put on by the Wilderness Workshop at Dos Gringos Burritos in Carbondale on Wednesday. On Thursday, Beever brings his presentation, “Pushed Up the Mountain: Pikas and Climate Change,” to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

Beever has been studying pikas since 1994 in the Great Basin, in a region bounded by the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and the Wasatch range in Utah, and running from Oregon to Nevada. His initial research found that pikas had disappeared from seven of 25 sites where they were known to have existed, and more recently he has found that they are no longer in some additional sites as well.




More frightening, said Beever, is that the lowest elevation at which the animals are being detected has risen by hundreds of feet, with three-quarters of the increase taking place in the last eight years.

Pikas are highly vulnerable to high temperatures, and that vulnerability is contributing to their disappearance in some areas, Beever said. His research suggests that human impacts, such as introduction of grazing animals, also plays a factor.

The problem with pikas being forced to higher terrain comes when there’s no more elevation left to climb. The furry critters rarely stray more than a kilometer from their homes, so traveling long distances to better habitat isn’t an option. In essence, they become stranded on islands that disappear as temperatures rise.

Beever said he is hesitant to suggest that his research into pikas can be extrapolated to other species.

Still, “It’s an early warning indicator that more changes in other species are going to happen,” he said.

He noted that researchers at Yosemite National Park have found that the elevation distribution of some animals has increased by about 2,000 feet between the early 1900s and the beginning of this century.

“They see a corresponding move upslope in their plant data, too,” Beever said.

Beever said it’s easy to ignore isolated stories that suggest global warming is occurring, but those incidents are no longer so isolated, with animals such as butterflies, amphibians, birds and trees all showing effects.

“The thing with climate change in general, we have now thousands of different stories that are all pointing in the same direction,” he said.

Beever said he fears that pikas will become relegated to a few last strongholds and within a few decades will disappear altogether in the areas he has studied in the Great Basin, depriving future generations of the chance to enjoy seeing them where he has.

In an interview, Beever said he expects pikas to last longer in Colorado, but that their lower elevation limit will rise.

Rodent-like in size and appearance, pikas actually are related to rabbits. Beever has found them to be easy to study because they are active during the day, build visible stacks of vegetation for later use, and often emit chirps as warnings to visitors or as mating calls.

“They’re kind of like, ‘hey, hey, this is my spot,’ or ‘hey, baby, come over to my pad,'” Beever said. Their chirp is likely familiar to hikers who venture into Colorado’s high country.

Kaaren Peck of New Castle is among the fans of the charismatic animals, and took her twin 14-year-old sons, Aaron and Zack, to hear Beever’s presentation Wednesday. She was disturbed by Beever’s findings.

“But I also want more data; I want to know more,” she said.

She believes global warming is occurring.

“I don’t think we can deny it. It’s just whether or not it’s stoppable, controllable,” she said.


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