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The Green Life: Update: Good News For Pikas

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September 06, 2011

Update: Good News For Pikas

Pika In 2008, Sierra magazine published a feature on pikas, potato-size mammals that thrive in cool climates and can be killed by a "heat wave" of a mere 80 degrees. Our prognosis for the critters: not good. Climate change could force the mountain-dwelling pikas to move upslope as temperatures increase, but once they reach their ecosystem's summit, they'll have nowhere left to go.

But a recent study assessed pika sites in the Southern Rockies, and it turns out the little guys are holding strong — for now. Back in '08, Sierra author Joan Hamilton wrote that "in the Rockies, whose many 14,000-feet peaks and cool northern latitudes offer the best habitat for the species in the Lower 48, the pika's status is unknown." Now we have some intel and it turns out Hamilton's hunch that the Rockies might be a pika stronghold was on the mark.

Researchers from CU-Boulder monitored 69 locations that historically harbored pika populations. They found that the small mammals were still thriving in 65 of the sites. The researchers believe that the pika's success may be due to the higher elevations and more contiguous habitats of the Rockies, as opposed to Nevada's Great Basin, where the animal hasn't fared as well.

And the four pika-less locales? "The sites that had been abandoned by pikas in our study area were all drier on average than the occupied sites," said study leader Liesl Erb. So savor the good news for now. Since some climate-change models predict drier conditions in the coming years, the next pika update may be a downer.

--Della Watson

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