By Keith Bruno
Special to The SUN
On Oct. 23, 13 sixth-graders from Pagosa Peak Open School set out from Wolf Creek Pass on a 1-mile uphill climb through early-winter snow along the Continental Divide Trail with their teacher, Kelsey Wright, and Audubon Rockies’ Community Naturalist Keith Bruno to initiate a long-term monitoring plot for their mascot, the American pika (ochotona princeps).
A little-known creature of the Rocky Mountain high country, the pika has been tagged as a sensitive species to the onset threat of a warming climate. This member of the order lagomorpha (which includes hares and rabbits) relies on the cooling shade of large rocks found among alpine talus fields to temperature regulate their denning areas. They feed on the young stems of grasses and flowers found nearby to their territories. They do not hibernate and, thus, spend the majority of the warmer months gathering foods to cache in “haypiles” to provide winter forage.
The Mountain Studies Institute, a mountain ecology research organization located in both Silverton and Durango, has worked as a regional contributor to Rocky Mountain Wild, the lead organization on the pika monitoring project, to offer a citizen science reporting portal for the San Juan Mountains.
Citsci.org allows folks to “adopt” a site and make observations, confirming occupancy of pika in public lands locations. The information obtained by project participants, including weather measurements, terrain characterization and photos of surroundings, provide project partners with the necessary information to determine how pika populations fluctuate over time and catalog general phenological data for alpine environments.
After a 30-minute period of focused observation for visual and auditory detections of pika, the students set about noting GPS coordinates and weather, taking measurements of boulders on-site, looking for sign of new and old haypiles, and identifying other animal species nearby. These students will upload their data online and continue to manage the pika plot for future years.
To get involved in the project, visit http://www.mountainstudies.org/pikanet.