Aimee Heffernan - June 2018

At the end of May our team began field training as it poured rain in the Gallatin Canyon. My advisor, Dr. Erik Beever, was wearing a fleece with an embroidered pika on it and seemed not to notice the rain even as my raincoat began the soak through. Peter, Lyman, Kenny, and I stood shivering as Erik explained how to use our compass, inclinomator, and range finder. The whole thing felt a little ironic since pikas aren’t surface active in the rain and we were being lectured on how to travel on talus safely even though we were in probably the most unsafe conditions. Wet talus = bad.

A few days later we traveled to the Donkey Hills of Idaho for a more intensive training session. Sandwiched between the Lemhi Mountains and the Lost River Range, the Donkey Hills have an arid climate and a lot of talus to survey. Here, Peter showed Lyman, Kenny, and I what types of rocks pikas live in and how to identify signs of occupancy or past occupancy.

Image 1. The Lost River Range as seen from the Donkey Hills

Pikas typically live under larger rocks that have a level area below them. We peered around many of these types of boulders looking for white urine stains on the smaller rocks beneath them, pellets, and haypiles (vegetation collected by pikas). At each rock with signs of pika occupancy we took a GPS point with a description of what we found there. If we didn’t see pikas, old haypiles, or signs of haying, we took samples of the old pellets so Erik can run carbon dating tests on them. These patches are extirpated, meaning locally extinct. The pikas that we see evidence of have either died or migrated to another area. Labeling a patch extirpated is a pretty big deal and sometimes we would have to sit and wait to see a pika just in case before moving on.

Image 2. Peter pointing out a urine stain

At each talus patch we fill out a data sheet that contains questions about weather, elevation, vegetation, slope, aspect, and other wildlife in the area. Collecting this data was extremely slow at first but after a few patches we were pros. By writing all of these small details down I have learned a lot about identifying vegetation and these details also help me notice trends that I may otherwise ignore. Pikas like raspberries, and often near their home range are raspberry bushes mowed down from the pikas eating them. They also seem to stay above elevations of 7,500 feet give or take a few feet, most patches we surveyed below that elevation were extirpated. In one long patch we noticed that pikas had not lived at the bottom of the patch for many years, but there were two living at the very top, maybe two hundred feet upslope. For me, this was an eye opening example of how sensitive they are.

Image 3. Lyman checking out a possible pika site

I haven’t spent much time traveling off trail until now and though it is incredibly inefficient, slow, and often steep hiking, I have learned to appreciate all of the things I wouldn’t see if I was on a trail. Each day we found something new like elk antlers, morel mushrooms for our dinner, pieces of obsidian, and millions of tiny flowers. Across the valley I looked at the Lemhi Mountains, a range we will survey this summer, it looked huge and intimidating but I’m curious to know what hidden gems we will find there.

Image 4. The Lemhi Mountains from a patch we surveyed

The next three months will be spent almost entirely in the field and my main concern is the amount of snow still in the mountains. While the heavy snow year made for incredible skiing this winter, it makes surveying high elevation patches impossible. We can’t collect data on pikas if they’re still buried in snow. If worse comes to worse, I’ll just have to bring my skis along for some summer skiing.

 

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