Pika monitoring project uses volunteers to collect scientific data
The Colorado Pika Project on the White River National Forest is back for its fourth summer, giving local hikers the opportunity to help scientists understand the impacts of climate change on the American pika and its habitat.
American pikas are small mammals, most closely related to rabbits, that are iconic to the alpine scree fields of Colorado and the West. According to the Forest Service, recent disappearances of pika populations have been linked to changes in temperature, snowpack and vegetation.
Alex Wells, community science coordinator at the Denver Zoo and co-leader of the pika project, said scientists have yet to see pika populations decline in the state. Though, as declines have already been seen in other pika ranges, like the Great Basin in Nevada, there is a need for proactive conservation work in Colorado.
Wells said this project is important because it can get locals who are passionate about the environment directly involved in scientific efforts while simply going on a hike in their area.
“It’s an awesome way for folks to contribute to the conservation of an iconic Colorado species just while doing something that they love,” Wells said.
Wells leads the effort alongside Megan Mueller, a conservation biologist with the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Wild, who helped launch the initial project in 2010. Initially, the project had about 44 monitoring sites solely in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was started based on a model predicting that pikas would be gone from the national park by the year 2100.
Since then, the project has extended to the White River National Forest and now includes almost 200 monitoring sites across the state, Wells said.
Rocky Mountain Wild and the Denver Zoo host training sessions for those interested in volunteering each summer. Volunteers will learn how to document and look for pika signs, as well as record important environmental variables that influence pika habitats.
“We really do require folks to have a good sense of what they’re doing and what they’re looking for, and by far the best way to get that knowledge is to go out in the field,” Wells said.
Volunteer training sessions generally go from about 7 a.m. to noon and are available as follows:
- July 17 at Independence Pass.
- July 18 at the Colorado River Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park, north of Grand Lake.
- July 25 at the Trappers Outlet Trailhead east of Meeker.
- July 10, July 25 and Aug. 9 at Vail Pass, co-hosted by the Walking Mountains Science Center.
Training sessions typically involve a 2-4 mile hike.
According to Wells, recordable pika signs can include actually seeing a pika, hearing a pika squeak or seeing pika droppings and hay piles. Wells said pikas don’t hibernate in the winter, but instead they make a food stash or a hay pile throughout the summer that can grow to be quite large.
Volunteers are also trained to track environmental signs in pika habitats, taking note of the presence of water and vegetation that pikas can eat and the size of the rocks they’re found in. Wells said this summer they are also placing tools in the field that can automatically collect information on temperatures in pika habitats.
Wells also said the team is in the process of developing a pika monitoring mobile app, which will allow volunteers — trained through the project or not — to document pika activity.
In 2020, the project did not train any new volunteers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there were still 123 volunteers participating in research. Earlier training sessions this year have already prepared 55 new volunteers to monitor pika activity, and Wells said he hopes to reach a total of 100 new volunteers by the end of the season.
Wells said the team is just now getting to a point where it is collecting good, valuable data as it builds up its volunteer base. He said he expects to have a good estimate for the trajectory of local pika populations in the next two or three years of research.
For more information about the Colorado Pika Project and to sign up to volunteer visit PikaPartners.org.
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