Some out-of-place pikas raise questions about species

  • Friday, May 23, 2014 2:00pm
  • Life

Pikas have been on the radar for the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Mill Creek personnel.

Most of us do not associate pikas with lower elevations. The lower end of their range is 3,000 feet in elevation.

A discussion about Snohomish County pikas started in 2007 when the Fish and Wildlife was contacted by the Navy about an annual environmental review because the military was required to consider federal and state threatened and endangered species and those listed as candidates.

One such federal candidate in 2007, the pika, possibly had been spotted at Jim Creek Naval Radio Station west of Oso, elevation about 700 feet.

“I said don’t worry about pikas, they’re high elevation species. A few days later he sent me a photograph,” said Ruth Milner, district wildlife biologist.

“They just wanted to understand better about the rare or unusual or potentially declining pika population. The Navy takes responsibility for the animals and fish on their properties,” Milner said.

The species is a good indicator of climate change because it is very sensitive to high temperatures. There’s evidence that in parts of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains, where conditions are warming, pikas are either absent or won’t likely stay if the warming trend continues, she said.

Since the initial contact, pikas were taken off the candidate list due to a lack of scientific information. But it wasn’t forgotten. Last year the Navy contracted with the Fish and Wildlife Department to find out whether there were pikas on the base, where they were, and how many lived there.

A sighting at a second location made things interesting. And wildlife biologist Thomas Cyra recently heard two animals at that location. The plan is to go to the base once a week, but when it rains, pikas don’t show themselves, Milner said.

Pikas normally live on talus slopes (loose rocks lying on a mountain slope) and mountain meadows above 3,000 feet.

Do the Jim Creek pikas indicate a trend or an anomaly, a temperature or food issue?

“Nobody knows. We could have had small pockets of lower-elevation pikas forever. It could be a reaction to a change in the environment. It’s clearly not common,” Milner said.

The concern for pikas revolves around climate change.

Higher temperatures potentially would mean smaller meadows, shorter growing season thus less abundance of food, less time to gather food for the winter, reduced snow pack that insulates against the cold, and in the summer, possible deaths from overheating.

There are low-elevation populations of low numbers in the Columbia River Gorge, possibly filtering down from the Cascades along rivers flowing toward the Columbia, and off Highway 20 near the Seattle City Light dam.

“The Jim Creek pikas are a little more mysterious than that. They had to get through a lot of low-elevation forest to get there,” Milner said.

“We could just have a biological sink where animals disperse into a habitat that doesn’t satisfy their life history requirements … They get pushed into marginal habitat with others of the same species but they usually don’t reproduce a population.”

Pikas are in the same family as the rabbit although they don’t have long ears. They will gather grasses and other vegetation and cache the collection for the winter.

When it snows, they go underground, traveling through tunnels in the snow.

Pikas mark their territories by rubbing their cheek glands on rocks. They live in small groups, are very territorial and, unlike rabbits, have low reproductive rates.

They have hair on their feet, allowing greater traction as they dart from rock to rock.

Each weighs about 6 ounces; most are 5- to 8-inches long, with round ears.

And yes, they are cute.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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