Pika Poop, Mountain Goats and Receding Glaciers
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.