Monitoring Pikas in Lassen Park
By Laura Christman
By Laura Christman
Photos by Frank Kratofil
PIKAS ARE TOUGH, clever, industrious. And adorable. “They are really cute, cool little animals,” says Mike Magnuson, wildlife biologist at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Lassen Park has been monitoring American pikas (Ochotona princeps) for almost 20 years. The hamster-size, high-altitude mammals are an indicator species for impacts of warming climate.
“The pikas are kind of like the canary in the coal mine for climate change. They can’t handle high temperatures – not much more than 81 degrees,” Magnuson says. Because they already live at high elevation, there aren’t many options for moving to cooler locations.
In 1999, Lassen Park, Crater Lake National Park and Craters of the Moon and Lava Beds national monuments joined forces to develop protocols for pika monitoring and to begin surveys. Those units later became part of Pikas in Peril, a monitoring program including Great Sand Dunes, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks. A new five-year project for monitoring at the four original national park units got underway last year.
So far, pikas seem to be holding their own at Lassen Park, according to Magnuson. “I think we are fairly stable.”
Although they look a bit mousey, pikas are connected to the rabbit family. A pika typically weighs 4 to 6 ounces and is 6 to 9 inches long. It has curved claws, padded toes and a high-pitched warning squeak: “Eee eee eeeee!”
Pikas don’t hibernate. They live in dens under rocks insulated by deep snowpack, munching on stockpiled vegetation to make it through the cold months. Snipping and gathering the stash of wildflowers, stems and grasses keeps pikas busy in summer. To prevent fresh vegetation from getting moldy, pikas pile clippings and allow the vegetation to dry in the sun.
“They know they need to dry it before they store it under the rocks,” Magnuson says.
Pika sleuthing is challenging. Pikas live in out-of-the-way places and are difficult to spot. Their grayish-brown fur blends with the surroundings. Plus they are shy and cautious (foxes, pine martens, hawks and others consider them snacks).
Surveys focus less on actual sightings of pikas than on finding evidence of pikas — scat resembling peppercorns and piles of snipped plants.
Lassen Park gets help with its August and September surveys from seasonal interns and two park volunteers: Jay and Terri Thesken of Redding. Now in their sixth year, Terri recalls thinking at first: “How hard can it be? You take your lawn chair up there and sit and watch for pikas.”
The reality was scrambling up steep talus slopes with car-size rocks and shining flashlights into dark, hidden spaces in search of pika poop and haystacks.
“The hardest part was climbing over the boulders,” she says.
The Theskens monitor 18 sites. It takes eight to 10 hours a day over five days. The effort has rewards.
“For me, it is just being out in Lassen Park away from all the people and doing something worthwhile — being citizen scientists,” Jay says.
“It’s a cool thing to do. It’s fun,” Terri says. She’s become very fond of pikas. Public attention often goes to large mammals, she notes. “The little guys are overlooked.”
Lassen Park and Lassen Association launched Adopt a Pika in May 2017 to raise awareness of pikas and support the park’s pika monitoring. For $25, adopters get a pika fact sheet, adoption certificate and toy pika.
“The response was larger than the supply,” Lassen Park Ranger Amanda Sweeney says of the initial batch of fuzzy pika toys. In the first year, some 350 were adopted.
Pikas, with their furry oval bodies, rounded ears and hardworking habits, have lots of appeal. “It’s such a small animal and it cares for itself so well in such a harsh environment,” Sweeney notes.
Lassen Park has a newer hands-on activity at Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center called Pika Private Investigator, which helps children learn about pikas and climate.
The cooler days of fall are prime time to try to spot a pika at Lassen Park. Sweeney says good places to look are the Chaos Crags pullout about a mile east of Manzanita Lake on the main park road, along Cinder Cone Trail near Butte Lake and just below the Bumpass Hell Trail parking lot. •