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News / Life / Clark County Life

Cascades Pika Watch: Volunteers needs to head into Columbia River Gorge to track cute critters

Program coordinated by Oregon Zoo interested in Columbia Gorge pika populations because they thrive at low elevations and climate change appears to be complicating their survival

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 9, 2024, 6:05am
4 Photos
The Oregon Zoo is recruiting volunteers to seek out one of the Columbia River Gorge&rsquo;s cutest residents this summer: the American pika.
The Oregon Zoo is recruiting volunteers to seek out one of the Columbia River Gorge’s cutest residents this summer: the American pika. (Photo contributed by Linda Steider) Photo Gallery

This year, you could visit the Columbia River Gorge to take in its breathtaking views, its unique geology, its brilliant wildflowers.

Or, you could go in quest of cute.

The Gorge’s cutest creature must be the American pika, a relative of the rabbit that resembles nothing so much as a fat, fuzzy potato with mouselike ears and stubby legs. Compounding the pika’s cute quotient is a cry like a squeak toy.

Where in the Gorge can you locate such cuteness? That’s just what Cascades Pika Watch, a citizen-science effort coordinated by the Oregon Zoo, wants you to help find. Volunteers are welcome to sign up for a quick course — offered either in person or online — in finding, identifying and logging American pikas in the Gorge. Visit www.oregonzoo.org/wildlife/cascades-pika-watch to get all the details and dates.

Once you’ve trained for the pika patrol, your job will be to head east into the Gorge once or twice per month to find some sweet spot along a public hiking trail where you can sit quietly and wait for the cuteness to emerge.

To Learn More

To see a fearsome pika and hear its bloodcurdling roar — just kidding, it looks like a spud and sounds like a squeak toy — check out a video from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Columbia Pacific Northwest: https://www.facebook.com/USFWSPacific.

 

“We call them sitting surveys because you just sit on the trail for 20 minutes,” said Cascades Pika Watch science adviser Johanna Varner. “You watch for movement and you listen for their squeak. It sounds like a dog toy to me. It’s a very characteristic sound.”

Cute but vanishing

Scientists like Varner are especially interested in Columbia Gorge pika populations — both because they thrive at surprisingly low elevations there, and also because, unfortunately, the warming climate appears to be complicating their survival.

“Pikas have already disappeared from more than one-third of their previously known habitat in Oregon and Nevada,” says the National Wildlife Federation. In Oregon, pikas are listed as “sensitive” to threats like climate change. In Washington, they’re protected from hunting.

Typical pika habitat is 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. But one special population of pikas lives in the lower-altitude talus fields of the western Columbia River Gorge — mostly on the shadier Oregon side, between Wahkeena Falls and Wyeth.

“The Gorge is thousands of feet lower in elevation than where we’d expect to find pikas,” Varner said. “It’s literally the lowest elevation where we find this species anywhere in its range.”

That seems to be because, even as ground-level Gorge air heats up in summer, the air below talus fields stays as chilly as a refrigerator. It’s an unusual microclimate that happens to be just what pikas need.

But dramatic change has hit those Gorge sites in recent years, and scientists are bracing for more.

The Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, which scorched 50,000 acres in the Gorge, destroyed much pika habitat. Cascades Pika Watch, launched with a $24,100 grant from the U.S. Forest Service, started tracking local pikas and their habitats the following year.

Their rebound has been impressive. Pikas have repopulated nearly three-quarters of all their pre-fire Gorge sites, according to Cascades Pika Watch. (Volunteerism has been impressive too. Last year, a record 326 volunteers trained and surveyed 76 known pika sites in the Gorge.)

But warming temperatures appear to be driving pikas out of what had been reliably chilly, low-lying rock fields and up to higher, cooler elevations. That’s why Cascades Pika Watch plans to spread this year’s volunteers farther east than usual — out to some of the drier, warmer edges of pika habitat, where the effects of climate change may already be apparent.

“Two of the ‘edge sites’ we’ll be surveying are near Viento State Park (near Hood River) and Stevenson (across the river in Washington),” said Kelsey Wallace, a spokesperson for the Oregon Zoo and Cascades Pika Watch.

“Data from Cascades Pika Watch is helping us better understand the unique ecosystem in the Gorge, and it’s been amazing to see the positive impact it’s had on both people and pikas,” Varner said. “It’s open to anyone, and it’s a perfect opportunity to get outdoors and make a meaningful contribution to conservation science.”

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