If vast views of sublime scenery don’t lure you to the Columbia River Gorge, how about a little dose of irresistible cuteness? With a dollop of environmental virtue for good measure?
The tiny American pika looks like a cross between a fuzzy brown bunny and a potato, with an alarm cry like a squeak toy. Its usual habitat is the mountainside talus fields — those scenic, sloping patches of mossy boulders — that can be found at higher elevations on Mount Hood and other volcanic Pacific Northwest peaks.
“They’re these cute, fun little animals that are usually found in alpine habitats,” said Johanna Varner, a biologist who studies pikas.
But one special pika population lives in the lower-altitude talus fields of the Columbia River Gorge, and that’s where you come in. Launched by a $24,100 grant from the U.S. Forest Service and coordinated by the Oregon Zoo, a citizen science project called Cascades Pika Watch aims to train several hundred volunteer pika trackers for the upcoming summer season.
“The Gorge is thousands of feet lower in elevation than where we’d expect to find pikas,” said Varner, who leads the project. “It’s literally the lowest elevation where we find this species anywhere in its range.”
Scientists first published their surprise at finding pikas in the Columbia River Gorge about a century ago, Varner said. But nobody started studying them seriously until about a decade ago, when baseline data was collected about their numbers and preferred locations.
Columbia River pikas prefer the shady, forested zone on the Oregon side between Troutdale and Viento, all the way up to Mount Hood, Varner said. While you find them around Beacon Rock too, they tend to avoid the sunnier Washington side of the Gorge, she said.
Scientists like Varner want to know why animals that usually prefer cool temperatures seem to thrive in an environment that gets warm in summer. It might be the temperature differential between heat in the air and cool that’s retained below boulders in the western Gorge, she said.
Varner started studying pikas in the Gorge before the Eagle Creek Fire struck in 2017. That fire, which was caused by a Vancouver teen with a firecracker, scorched 50,000 acres and altered the local ecology in ways that are still being studied.
Much pika habitat was destroyed by the fire, and the number of sites where they could be found plummeted in 2018, according to the earliest results of Cascade Pika Watch. But in 2019, those little potatoes-with-legs appeared to start making an impressive comeback.
“We really didn’t know how the species was responding to fire disturbances because you can’t really plan for that, let alone how it was doing being in a low-elevation forest,” Varner said. “But we saw a lot of patches that rebounded.”
In 2020, the whole project was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no data collection for three years as the pikas went about their business.
“We have data gaps,” Varner said.
Now, Varner said she’s excited to retrain experienced volunteers and deploy new ones to collect data.
Free, in-person sessions for new and returning pika spies will be May 11 and 12 at the Oregon Zoo and May 13 in White Salmon. Virtual trainings will be available on demand all summer. Check www.oregonzoo.org/conserve/cascades-pika-watch for the details.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to get outdoors and make a meaningful contribution to conservation science,” Varner said.
Their resilience may make them Gorge superheroes, but because they’re not much more to look at than little brown ovals, pikas are hard to spot on the landscape. That’s one reason why volunteers need training, Varner said. Complete the training and you get online access to site maps and directions for about 100 study sites in the western Gorge. Most are on familiar hiking trails, Varner said. Volunteers can sign up to visit whichever sites they like, whenever they like.
“We call them sitting surveys because you just sit on the trail for 20 minutes,” Varner said. “You watch for movement and you listen for their squeak. It sounds like a dog toy to me. It’s a pretty characteristic sound.”
You can stay in one spot for 20 minutes and call it good, she said. You can stay longer and get really friendly with one group of pikas. Or you can hike from site to site, checking here and there, maybe making a whole day of it. The data will be valuable no matter how many pika you do or don’t see, Varner said.
“From a scientific perspective, this is a fantastic opportunity,” she said. “We hope to get a lot of eyes and ears out there, looking and listening for these animals. With so many more observations than before, we’ll get a clearer picture what’s going on.”