North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park

Feds review mountain-dwelling pika for threatened-species list

August 24, 2009, 7:24 am

EASY PASS, North Cascades National Park — Pikas don't ask much.

With brave squeaks, belted out from atop their rock piles, they defend their realm in the talus slopes way up here in the mountains, more than a mile in the sky, far from anyone, anywhere.

Yet even in their remote realm, the small, furry pika, a close relative of the rabbit, may be affected by humans.

Some wildlife advocates warn that pikas, with their preference for the cool, lofty high country, are at risk of extinction throughout the West by the end of the century as the climate warms. They have sued the feds to determine whether the animal should be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

But others say losses of some local populations don't spell extinction risk for an animal still abundant in many places.

A decision is due from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by February.

Meanwhile, in a separate effort, scientists are studying pika populations at North Cascades National Park, in a first-ever, one-year pilot study funded by Seattle City Light, which tracks habitat in the North Cascades, where it operates hydroelectric dams. The study is intended to build a baseline of data about where pika are presently found.

"Climate change is the biggest issue facing our national parks," said Chip Jenkins, park superintendent. "Scientists have determined that our climate is changing, and it is changing rapidly. What we are doing is looking for key indicators, key species that are likely to be the ones that show the first response to climate change."

To many scientists, pikas are a perfect study candidate because they are sensitive to temperature. They can be killed by temperatures higher than 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and prefer the rugged, rocky habitat found typically, but not exclusively, at higher elevations.