Pika Poop, Moun­tain Goats and Re­ced­ing Glaciers

SkiTrax - - Contents - by Jean Arthur

Rapidly shrink­ing glaciers in Mon­tana’s Glacier Na­tional Park alarm sci­en­tists and vis­i­tors to the moun­tain­ous 4,100-square-kilo­me­tre (1.013-mil­lion-acre) park along the Al­berta bor­der. In the past half-cen­tury, more than half of Glacier’s ice pack has dis­ap­peared. All the glaciers have re­treated.

To mea­sure the im­pacts of a chang­ing cli­mate in the high coun­try, the park and other na­tional lands, vol­un­teers mon­i­tor an­i­mals that may be at risk of di­min­ish­ing pop­u­la­tions or even ex­tinc­tion due to in­creased tem­per­a­ture, loss of glaciers, change in habi­tat and the demise of for­age.

The Crown of the Con­ti­nent Re­search Learn­ing Cen­ter, based in West Glacier, Mont., rec­og­nized that moun­tain goat and pika pop­u­la­tions de­clined out­side Glacier, yet the park’s re­search staff needed base­line data to ex­am­ine changes in these two high­el­e­va­tion mam­mals.

In 2008, the Crown of the Con­ti­nent staff es­tab­lished the High Coun­try Ci­ti­zen Science Project. Since then, a few hun­dred vol­un­teers have col­lected data on species of con­cern, pika and moun­tain goats, an­i­mals that rely on the cool tem­per­a­tures of the high coun­try for their for­ag­ing and es­cape from preda­tors.

For the past five sum­mers, my fam­ily and I have vol­un­teered to back­pack into Glacier’s moun­tains and val­leys to doc­u­ment pika and moun­tain goats and their habi­tat.

We look for pika poop. My hus­band, Lynn, and son, Bridger, scram­ble over a boul­der field be­tween Canada’s Water­ton Lakes Na­tional Park, where we start our back­pack trip, and Bow­man Lake, where we fin­ish our five days in the high coun­try.

We pack binoc­u­lars, a GPS with the study sites pre­loaded, a tele­scope, tri­pod, goat and pika sur­vey forms and lit­tle envelopes to col­lect pika scat. Oh, and each of us packed a canis­ter of pep­per spray in case of a chance en­counter with one of Glacier’s apex preda­tors: the griz­zly bear. “Sh­hhh,” I whis­pered. “I think I hear pika.” Lynn can’t hear it. Bridger is skep­ti­cal. “It’s a mar­mot,” he says, and darn if the 23-year-old isn’t cor­rect. The good news is that mar­mot and pika of­ten share the same scree fields. The bad news is that we don’t find pika at this site.

“I found a hayp­ile,” says Lynn, shin­ing a su­per-bright flash­light be­tween me­tre-high rocks. “It’s re­ally old though. And the scat is all white – old.”

We look for an hour for ev­i­dence: fresh scat, pika calls and hayp­iles, which can reach as much as one me­tre high and a me­tre­di­am­e­ter pile of dry­ing grasses, sedges and wild­flow­ers. Dur­ing the Crown of the Con­ti­nent field-train­ing ses­sion five years ago, we hiked to a pika site near Two Medicine Lake. As we ex­am­ined a hayp­ile, a pika squeaked its “Eep!” and dashed un­der a boul­der while car­ry­ing a mouth­ful of pur­ple flow­ers. Pika are cute.

The en­dear­ing Amer­i­can pika is an her­bi­vore that looks mouse-like but is in­stead re­lated to the rab­bit and hare fam­ily. At 120-175g, the cin­na­mon-brown or gray fur­balls shel­ter among boul­ders. As sub­ni­vian crea­tures – pika don’t hi­ber­nate – they tun­nel un­der the snow that can be sev­eral me­tres deep in Glacier each win­ter.

They hide from preda­tors, coy­otes, weasels, er­mines, martens ea­gles and other birds of prey – and now cli­mate change.

Sum­mer tem­per­a­tures linger deeper into fall and spring, warm­ing and melt­ing glaciers at a faster pace than ever doc­u­mented. Species that must have cool weather to sur­vive might not be able to re­lo­cate to higher, cooler el­e­va­tions. Pika’s body tem­per­a­ture at 104.2°F can quickly in­crease to a deadly 109.6°F even when the out­side tem­per­a­ture is be­low 80°F. They don’t sweat or pant so they need habi­tat – cool places – to pre­vent their body tem­per­a­tures from ris­ing dan­ger­ously high.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Park Ser­vice, “Cli­mate mod­els pre­dict that the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture in North Amer­ica will rise by 2°-10°F by the end of the 21st cen­tury. North­west Mon­tana’s av­er­age tem­per­a­ture has al­ready risen 2.34°F (1.8 times the global av­er­age) in the last cen­tury, with high-el­e­va­tion ar­eas warm­ing at an even faster rate.”

What re­sults is a re­duc­tion of pika habi­tat, when conifers en croach the alpine mead­ows and re­duce for­age and negate the pika’s abil­ity to de­tect preda­tors.

That’s when the glaciol­o­gists from Glacier Na­tional Park sound an alarm. They es­ti­mate the glaciers’ age at 7,000 years from the Lit­tle Ice Age. Prior to that, dur­ing the Pleis­tocene Epoch, which ended ap­prox­i­mately 12,000 years ago, ice cov­ered the North­ern Hemi­sphere, low­er­ing sea lev­els some 300 feet. Near Glacier Na­tional Park, ice was a mile deep.

Mas­sive re­ced­ing glaciers shaped the hang­ing val­leys of Glacier – thus its name. The park’s iconic arêtes and horns, cirques and tarns, and chains of lakes called pater­nos­ter lakes were all shaped by glaciers. Based on cur­rent re­search mod­els, all the glaciers will dis­ap­pear by 2030.

None of the study sites we ex­am­ined in 2016 and 2017 re­vealed cur­rent pika res­i­dents. Did they per­ish? Or move? Re­lo­cat­ing seems un­likely given that, in many cases, the next clos­est scree and boul­der fields are half-kilo­me­tre or more away. Mov­ing to higher el­e­va­tion would make sense ex­cept that Glacier has only six moun­tains of more than 3,000 me­tres, which is the far end of the range for pika.

There is some good news among the dire. A new United States Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey (USGS) study re­leased in July 2017 in­di­cates that some wildlife is dis­play­ing “be­hav­ioral [sic] flex­i­bil­ity – the abil­ity to rapidly change be­hav­ior [sic] in re­sponse to short – or long-term en­vi­ron­men­tal changes such as cli­mate vari­abil­ity,” notes the study’s lead re­searcher, Erik Beever.

“Given that species must cope with vari­abil­ity in en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions over mul­ti­ple time scales, be­hav­ioral [sic] flex­i­bil­ity can al­low some an­i­mals a means by which to rapidly and ef­fec­tively cope with such vari­abil­ity, yet without com­mit­ting to more per­ma­nent char­ac­ter­is­tics that won’t al­ways be ben­e­fi­cial,” says Beever.

The re­searchers gleaned data from 186 stud­ies world­wide that looked at an­i­mals’ flex­i­bil­ity in deal­ing with cli­mate changes.

“The most com­mon be­hav­ioral [sic] re­sponse ex­hib­ited by species in­volved chang­ing the tim­ing of life events such as lay­ing eggs, giv­ing birth, mat­ing or start­ing mi­gra­tion,” notes the USGS web­site. “Such be­hav­ioral [sic] flex­i­bil­ity was found most fre­quently among stud­ies of in­ver­te­brates, fol­lowed by birds, mam­mals, rep­tiles, am­phib­ians and fishes.”

And for my favourite lit­tle mam­mal? The study re­vealed that, oc­ca­sion­ally, pika ex­hibit flex­i­ble be­hav­iours to avoid and ac­com­mo­date cli­matic stress by chang­ing “for­ag­ing strat­egy, habi­tat use and heat-reg­u­lat­ing pos­tures.”

The seem­ingly un­suit­able habi­tat may be the pika’s new home, although more re­search is needed to de­ter­mine if pika in the North­ern Rock­ies will be able to find the cool, snowy, rocky ter­ri­tory.

Why should skiers care about a fur­ball that few see? Ochotona prin­ceps’ de­cline is a har­bin­ger of the de­cline of mois­ture in the moun­tains, stored as snow­pack atop glaciers. That snow­pack in the high coun­try fills our streams and rivers. Glacier’s Triple Di­vide Peak is a hy­dro­log­i­cal apex with wa­ter­ways that flow into three ma­jor river sys­tems to dif­fer­ent oceans: the Pa­cific, the Gulf of Mex­ico/at­lantic Ocean and Hud­son Bay/arc­tic Ocean.

As seen this year af­ter hot­ter and drier years across the West, Glacier and Water­ton suf­fered months of wild­fires, and at this writ­ing, part of Glacier’s Go­ing-to-the-sun Road re­mains closed due to fires. What harms pika, harms peo­ple.

We feel a bit help­less. Af­ter all, what can a few lovers of win­ter and moun­tain spa­ces do to al­ter what ap­pears to be the course of cli­mate change? Skiers can com­mit to lim­it­ing ve­hi­cle use – both Lynn and I bike to work. We can buy lo­cally grown foods and prod­ucts with min­i­mal pack­ag­ing and re­cy­clable con­tain­ers. We win­ter-lovers can vol­un­teer va­ca­tion time to help gather data or sup­port the or­ga­ni­za­tions seek­ing sus­tain­able so­lu­tions to cli­mate is­sues. The Crown of the Con­ti­nent is one of 19 re­search and learn­ing cen­tres sup­port­ing na­tional parks across the coun­try, com­bin­ing science and ed­u­ca­tion to help pre­serve and pro­tect im­por­tant places for gen­er­a­tions to come.

Marker in­di­cates re­ced­ing Sperry Glacier now one-fifth of its orig­i­nal size.

Old pika hay pile

Park main­te­nance crew on Boul­der Pass Trail with rem­nants of Boul­der Glacier be­hind – 75% of its sur­face area was lost be­tween 1966 and 2005.

Moun­tain goat vis­its our camp­site in Glacier Na­tional Park.

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