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Scientists Watch Pikas Living In Colorado's High Alpine Areas For Clues On Climate Change

(CBS4)- A noisy little critter in Colorado's high alpine areas is getting more attention from scientists these days -- not just for preservation purposes, but for the important clues it can give us about climate change.

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"Pikas rely heavily on alpine habitat and so they're considered an indicator for how climate change may be affecting the alpine ecosystem. So they're essentially a sentinel or canary in the coal mine for how alpine ecosystems are doing," said Jen Prusse, District Wildlife Biologist for the White River National Forest.

Some researchers have described the pika (which is pronounced "PIKE-ah") as a russet potato with ears. And a very noisy one at that … if you haven't seen them while hiking in Colorado's high country, you've probably heard their squeaks.

In 2018, with help from Rocky Mountain Wild and the Denver Zoo, Prusse was able to help expand a project to study the rabbit relative. It's called the Pika Project and now has 83 sites across the White River National Forest. Little has been known about the pika prior to the project but now, the data is starting pay off.

"Populations seem to be widespread across the forest and trends do appear to be stable, but we need at least a couple more years of monitoring to really start to answer that trends question and hopefully with this kind of volunteer participation that we're getting, we'll be able to get a long-term data set to look at trends over time," she said.

The volunteers are critical to the Pika Project. In the White River National Forest alone, there have been hundreds of participants who have put in thousands of hours.

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"It greatly exceeds what we could've done on the forest with our usually one-to-two-person wildlife crew," said Prusse.

A lot of the training has been conducted by Alex Wells, Community Science Coordinator with the Denver Zoo.

"The Denver Zoo has a conservation program, we do work around the world and that includes right here in Colorado, and my role is that I coordinate our local community science projects so that's getting the public involved in helping our Colorado wildlife," he said.

"The hope is that our volunteers are going to keep it up over the next 3 or 4 years, keep gathering data and get a good baseline," he said.

He believes in with a few more years, they'll be able to get a sense for how the pika population is doing. Right now, he believes the population isn't on the decline like it is elsewhere, but there's still cause for concern.

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"As climate change goes on, which is expected to threaten pikas in Colorado like it's done in other places, we'll know if they start to decline and it's a lot easier to help a species when it starts to decline than when it's on the brink of extinction," he continued, "the idea is that by looking at this one animal, that's pretty easy to look for and listen for, we can get a sense of how the whole ecosystem is doing and it's such an important ecosystem for Colorado. I think the alpine in large part is what makes Colorado what it is."

For more information on the project and how you can volunteer to be part of the Pika Patrol and collect data, click here.

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