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Colorado: Citizen science project to monitor pikas

A great close-up view of a pika in the mountains near Aspen, Colorado. PHOTO COURTESY KIM FENSKE.

Long-term citizen science effort aimed at measuring climate change impacts in the Colorado high country

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The climate of the mountain West is changing, and some biologists have already raised alarm about the American pika, a small mammal that lives in some of the most rugged nooks and crannies of the region, hiding out among giant boulders. As the world heats up, habitat for pikas is shrinking, and they may not last through the century in parts of their range.

Federal biologists studied the pika to determine whether it could benefit from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. They concluded that, while the animals may be affected by climate change, enough habitat will remain to ensure the existence of the species. Visit  the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pika website to learn more.

Other scientists aren’t so sure. They think pikas might be “canaries in the coal mine” for global warming. Conservation biologists say that having a few remnant populations survive in isolated areas isn’t the same thing as ensuring long-term survival for the species as a whole. To gain a better understanding of what’s happening with pikas, Colorado-based conservation groups want some citizen help to gather better data on these cute and charismatic high country residents. They’ve started the Front Range Pika Project, a citizen science initiative that aims to engage the public in a long-term conservation study that, at the same time, could help raise public awareness about climate change impacts in the Colorado Rockies.

Volunteers will collect data about pikas and their habitat at high altitude field sites along Colorado’s Front Range, informing efforts to assess the impact of climate change on this cold-loving species. Colorado hikers are invited to join the pika patrol to contribute to this important study.

Urgently needed conservation measures for pikas include a better understanding of population numbers and range, habitat status and threats. The Front Range Pika Project grew out of this pressing need. The long-term monitoring program is designed to gain an understanding of pika distribution and improve the long-term viability of this vulnerable species.

The focal area is the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, where high elevation alpine ecosystems provide a bulk of habitat across the species’ range. Though local populations could persist in the Great Basin and elsewhere, American pika survival as a species is likely tied to their persistence in the relatively contiguous alpine ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains.

Volunteer Commitment and Requirements
Volunteers must be able to hike on talus at high altitudes, willing to navigate to somewhat remote field sites independently, and able to attend both an evening classroom training and a half-day field training. For safety reasons, field site visits must be made with a partner (another volunteer or a friend). Minimum volunteer age is 12 (when accompanied by an adult).

2011 Volunteer Trainings
Participants must attend one evening classroom session and one field session:
•    Evening: Thursday, July 7, 6-8 PM at Denver Zoo -or- Thursday, July 14,6-8 PM at Boulder Public Library
•    Field: Monday, July 11, 8:30 AM-1 PM, northwest of Boulder, CO -or- Sunday, July 17, 8:30 AM-1 PM, northwest of Boulder.

To learn more, visit www.pikapartners.org. To register, email Alison Huyett or call (303) 546-0214 x 5.

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