PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Columbia River Gorge’s unique population of Cascades pikas has seen a major comeback since the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, the Oregon Zoo announced on Nov. 7. Mouse-like in appearance, the russet-sized mammals known for their toy-like squeaks are more closely related to rabbits and hares.

The fluffy critters saw a significant decline in their population following the destructive fire. However, animal experts say that volunteers have recorded a 50% increase in their numbers since 2018. During the latest Columbia River Gorge “Pika Watch” survey, volunteers reported Pika sightings at 23 of 31 the studied sites.

“In the wake of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, conservationists were relieved to learn that one of the Columbia Gorge’s fluffiest residents — the American pika — was still squeaking by,” the Oregon Zoo said. “This year, there is even more cause to celebrate: Recent surveys show the tiny animals are making a strong comeback from the fire.”

While pikas typically live on mountain slopes at elevations above 6,000 feet, the Gorge population is recognized for thriving in its distinct, low-elevation habitat. Following the latest count, scientific adviser for the Pika Watch program Johanna Varner said that the Gorge pikas are nearing population numbers seen before the Eagle Creek Fire.

“The population in those areas hasn’t quite reached its pre-fire distribution but it’s getting close,” Varner said. “This is very encouraging news for everyone monitoring the Gorge pika population.”

Nearly 170 trained citizen scientists spent 1,620 hours looking for the Cascades pikas over the summer. Those interested in joining the 2024 Pika Watch can sign up for free in-person or online training.

Survey sites are positioned along public hiking trails. No special skills are required to join the count. The Oregon Zoo said that next year’s training schedule will be announced in the spring.