PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — From waterfalls to delicate wildflowers, the Columbia Gorge is full of surprises big and small. But perhaps its best-kept secret is a furry, potato-sized resident that’s been hiding under every hiker’s nose: the pika.
Despite resembling an overgrown hamster, the pika is a unique mammal related to rabbits. They live on rocky slopes and are found in Asia and North America, typically at high mountain elevations where summer heat isn’t an issue.
But there are some living in the Columbia Gorge — at just a few hundred feet above sea level. Their existence at a relatively low elevation is perplexing because conditions in the Gorge don’t match with the animal’s seemingly preferred environment.
The Oregon Zoo’s Cascade Pika Watch program aims to better understand these adorable little enigmas with the help of passionate volunteers.
Amanda Greenvoss is the program’s coordinator. She’s spent years working at the Oregon Zoo in various capacities and is particularly interested in what pikas are teaching not only scientists but everyday members of the community.
She explained that pikas are typically found in mountainous areas because they’re extremely temperature-sensitive.
“They can’t survive at temperatures much greater than 77 degrees — after that, they can actually die pretty quickly,” Greenvoss said, adding that normal pika populations live between 8,000 and 14,000 feet. In the fall, pikas spend their time collecting vegetation that they form into “hay piles.” The animals eat on this pile during the winter months from the comfort of their burrows that are insulated by a thick blanket of snow.
“There’s a couple of problems: if it’s too hot in the summertime, they will not have the chance to get out and collect enough of a hay pile and so they can end up starving in the wintertime because it was too hot in the summertime to get all that food,” said Greenvoss. “The weirder problem is they can actually freeze to death because of climate change because in the wintertime — their snow pile if it’s too thin, there’s not enough of a blanket for insulation.”
So why are these local pikas living in the Columbia Gorge where winter conditions seem so risky? Are they descendants of other Oregon pikas found in higher places, like Newberry Crater and the Wallowas?
“That’s a million-dollar question,” said Greenvoss. “We don’t know for sure, I mean they move like anything moves — but you imagine their teeny tiny legs, like how far it takes each generation to get a little further, a little further. And the big question is: there are pikas just across the river. Those pikas didn’t go across the river, so they must have come from another high mountain. These are completely separate populations, theoretically. Or were they there before the Missoula floods came through and made the Gorge? I don’t know.”
For now, the answer as to where the Gorge pikas migrated from eludes experts.
“It means that something’s going on with this population and we’re trying to understand why they’re able to live at this level,” said Greenvoss. And while their digs in the Gorge aren’t typical, they do make it easier for researchers to study them — including how they recover after a wildfire. Tragically, the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017 created the perfect laboratory.
This is where the Cascade Pika Watch program comes in.
People interested in joining the program take a training class, hike up a trail and collect data. Greenvoss said the numbers collected by the volunteers help scientists monitor the pika’s recovery rate.
There are two different projects within Pika Watch: a so-called “sitting survey” and an “abundance survey.” The former is accessible to many people, including families, as the only requirement is being able to hike up a trail. Once you reach your assigned spot, you sit or stand for 20 minutes and count the number of pikas you see.
“Our second opportunity is for abundance survey volunteers and these are volunteers that are actually climbing out on the talus slopes and they’re getting actual population data for each site. And that’s a much more rigorous job that takes a higher level of fitness,” Greenvoss said.
Even though Pika Watch has only been carrying out abundance surveys for two years, Greenvoss said they are starting to see some data trends.
“So post-fire — the summer after the fire — we had a big dip in our population,” she said. “And a big dip in how many sites we actually saw pikas at all. This last year, that swung up a little bit; it’s still not at pre-fire levels but it’s improving.”
Greenvoss explained that while they don’t yet know specific population numbers, the team hopes to eventually have “a better picture.”
But collecting field data isn’t the only purpose of Pika Watch.
“The secondary goal is related to the goal of the zoo, which is to connect people to wildlife and this is a really great way to do that,” said Greenvoss. “You come out to the Gorge, you’re standing in one place for 20 minutes and listening for pika — you’re probably also hearing the wind in the trees and catching a cute glimpse of a chipmunk or seeing a snake basking in the sun. So a perfect time to really connect with nature in a really meaningful way.”
And forming a connection with the natural world around us may be the key to unlocking a more sustainable and balanced planet.
“We believe that, if you connect with nature and if you really feel a part of nature, that you’re gonna make better consumer choices, that you’re gonna make better voting choices — that you’re going to take action that will actually impact and protect nature,” said Greenvoss. “So that to me, frankly, is more important than the data we’re collecting.”
Pikas live in various places in the Gorge, including the Angel’s Rest trail. Here are some of Greenvoss’ pro tips for spotting them:
- Find a “talus” slope (a hill covered in medium-sized rock fragments that may be slightly loose)
- Look for holes between rocks that something the size of a baked potato could squeeze through
- Listen for a pika’s distinctive high-pitched call. They make a “short call” with an “eenk” or “ehh-ehh” and a long call composed of a series of short, staccato calls
- Scan the slope with binoculars for a potato-sized creature with rounded ears. If it has a tail, it’s not a pika!