Global warming: I sure hope the pika pulls through

By Jayson Jacoby March 26, 2010 09:20 am

Were I asked to name my favorite animal — and I’m still waiting patiently for that particular query — the list of candidates would certainly include the American pika.

Whether this diminutive mammal — it’s about the size of a squirrel, only more adorable — would win, I can’t say.

I’m rather partial to the mountain goat, to name one competitor.

Also I have long harbored a peculiar fondness for the fisher.

I say peculiar because I’ve never actually seen a fisher, which is a sort of weasel, in the wild. It might well be that if I ever do see one I will come away feeling rather cheated, like a man who is told again and again about a certain charming woman and then, when he finally meets her, is chagrined to realize she has the personality of a bobcat that has one foot caught in a trap.

And she has bad teeth besides.

Of course it’s conceivable that I wouldn’t impress a fisher, either, were one to ever catch sight of me.

Not that I care what a fisher thinks.

Anyway, the pika has the advantage, in my hypothetical popularity contest, of familiarity.

I’ve seen plenty of pikas.

Which is no real trick, since pikas tend to live where nothing else will.

Or maybe it’s just that no other species has quite enough pluck to deal with the deprivations.

Pikas, in addition to looking like something your daughter would beg you to catch and bring home for her, are as tough as wolverines.

The pika’s preferred home is a rockslide high in the mountains — the sort of place generally inhabited only by insects, small lizards and clumsy hikers who fall on the rocks and fracture a fibula.

(And the hikers stay only until rescuers arrive.)

If you’ve walked across many talus slopes in the Elkhorns or the Wallowas I’d wager it’s likely that even if you didn’t see a pika that you heard one.

If you get within 100 feet of a pika it will in most cases emit a piercing whistle that reminds me of the call of a marmot or a sage rat.

Although in contrast to the behavior of sage rats, I’ve only rarely seen a pika exhibit the sort of bravado (or maybe it’s stupidity) that has left many of the former with a .22 slug in its guts. Pikas apparently have better sense than to stand still in the open, hoping the threat will go away. And for a pika, as for a sage rat, a threat is pretty much anything with warm blood.

And a few things with cold.

As I mentioned, the pika is an unusually hardy creature.

Pikas live year-round in the harsh alpine climate rather than retreating to the balmy lowlands like deer, the wimps.

And unlike reputedly rugged beasts such as the bear, the pika doesn’t need to resort to hibernation.

(Which, when you think about it, is basically a synonym for laziness. Yet nobody seems to nag bears about it. Or about anything else, really.)

Although considering a typical adult pika tops out at about six ounces, which is rather more slim than a double cheeseburger, I suppose I wouldn’t expect a pika to try to survive for six months on its accumulated fat.

Nor does it help that a healthy pika runs a temperature that in a toddler would send the parents scrambling for the Tylenol bottle. Also pikas have the approximate metabolic rate of Lance Armstrong at the top of the l’Alpe d’Huez.

I doubt, suffice it to say, that a hibernation-ready pika would qualify as either cute or cuddly. The sight of such a bloated pika would, in fact, probably scare me straight back to the trailhead.

The pika actually gets through winter much like a cattle rancher does — by putting up a stock of hay while the sun shines.

(Although the pika, unlike the rancher, actually eats the hay.)

All through the brief summer (and at the pika’s preferred altitudes summer is not so much a season as it is an interlude between late winter and early winter) pikas scythe down grass and other plants with their busy little teeth and spread the forage on rocks to cure in the sun.

They store the hay in fissures beneath rocks, and during the long winters the industrious little buggers dig tunnels in the snow to get to their haypiles.

As I said, these animals demonstrate a level of resolve that’s hard not to admire.

Given my affinity for the pika I was pleased by a dispatch that recently arrived in my e-mail inbox.

Pleased, but also somewhat perplexed.

The sender was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency’s biologists have decided that none of the five subspecies of American pika is in danger of extinction, and that none needs federal protection.

What surprised me is that anybody believed to the contrary.

I have a shelf full of Oregon hiking guides, the oldest published in the late 1960s and the newest just a few years ago, and both mention that pikas are frequently seen in the Wallowas.

That’s not exactly peer-reviewed science, of course. But the references suggest that pikas, or at least the local ones, have endured rather handily the current accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

(Not to mention other malignancies such as the Carter administration and disco.)

The Center for Biological Diversity is not so sanguine, however, as regards the pika’s staying power under the onslaught of a warming climate.

In 2007 the Center petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to list some Western pika populations as endangered, and the rest as threatened.

The gist of the Center’s case is that the climate will continue to heat up throughout the 21st century, and that pikas in certain areas won’t be able to survive in this steamy future.

Which at least sounds plausible, given the pika’s already elevated body temperature.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, pikas are so sensitive to heat that “death can occur after brief exposures to ambient temperatures greater than 77.9 degrees F.”

That’s pretty detailed research, right down to the tenth of a degree.

I wonder, though, whether anybody has told PETA about these experiments, which obviously ended badly for at least some of the pikas involved.

I also wonder why the sadists with the fancy thermometer didn’t bring along a stopwatch — what do they mean by “brief” exposure, anyway?

Being a curious sort I read the Center’s 62-page petition to the Fish and Wildlife Service (well, most of it). The agency lays out a pretty good case — at least to a layman like me who probably couldn’t tell a fisher from a pine marten.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, though, cited a couple of facts in its response that seem to me to challenge the notion that pika carcasses will soon be strewn across the West’s mountain slopes, like neophyte hikers who try to climb from the Colorado to the Grand Canyon rim in July with no provisions except a single bottle of Evian.

It turn out that pikas, notwithstanding their preference for the sorts of landscapes John Denver was always prattling on about, also have colonized places which are neither in the Rocky Mountains, nor especially high.

Among these are Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, and Lava Beds National Monument in Northern California.

Neither is what you could call a good spot to cool off.

They’re both of them handy, though, if you ever decide to satisfy your curiosity about what heat exhaustion really feels like but don’t want to hike a long ways.

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service concedes that a warmer climate could cause problems (excessive panting being one, presumably) for pikas in the Great Basin and some other relatively low-lying regions, the agency’s biologists also note that pikas don’t merely survive, but they actually thrive, in the aforementioned volcanic wastelands.

“Pika persist at these sites,” the Fish and Wildlife Service explained in a press release, “because they reduce activity during hot mid-day temperatures by retreating to significantly cooler conditions under the loose rock areas and perform daily activities during the cooler morning and evening periods.”

Which sounds almost identical to the advice government health departments dole out to people whenever the temperature goes above 90.

Well, identical except for the part about hunkering in crevices, which in lava beds is a good way to get all scraped up.

That pikas have figured this out by themselves (I presume they can’t decipher public service announcements) only adds to my admiration for the species.

I hope, at any rate, that the Fish and Wildlife Service is right about the pika’s ability to adapt.

Since the species has already proved it can subsist in lava beds without air-conditioning or cold beer, I’m betting on the pika.

And now that I’ve pondered the matter, I’m also going to conclude my little contest and award the blue ribbon to the pika.

That ought to give them a reason to hang on.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.