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Habitat shrinking for high alpine animals, like the tiny pika

Hiker Jake Bramante reached his destination, just on the other side of Gable Pass in Glacier National Park. He was looking to find an area he had seen once before, a limestone boulder field he knew was home to a population of one of his favorite animals—the pika.

“Any time I get to see them it’s always a special thing,” Bramante said. “They’re just cute and I love how hearty they are.”

Hearty in the right climate, anyway.

Credit Dan Boyce
University of Montana Wildlife Biology Professor Joel Berger
“Some of these high elevation species that are dependent on cold, they may have some problems here in the Northern Rockies,” --University of Montana Wildlife Biology Professor Joel Berger.

Dr. Joel Berger studies mammals which live in harsh climates like alpine zones. Berger said if temperatures keep rising in Montana, as evidence strongly suggests, high alpine mammals will be some of the first to feel the pinch.

Wolverines use mountain snowpack to dig dens and raise their young, mountain goats use the open cliffs as a way to escape predators, and pika are very sensitive to heat. The National Park Service said they can die "if exposed for half an hour" to temperatures above 78 degrees if they don’t find shelter.

“Species at the edge tend to blip off,” Berger said.

“(Pika) are not something that can say ‘well, I’ll just fly further north.’It’s kind of like bears in California. There are no grizzly bears in California anymore,” Jake Bramante said.

A couple years ago, Bramante quit his job at an IT professional, sold his house and started a video production company in Kalispell. He was looking for something to capture his focus.

“I ended up coming across the fact that no one had hiked all 734 miles of trail in Glacier Park,” he said, at least not in one season.

So in 2011, he did just that. Between mid-May and mid-October—he hiked every mile of trail in Glaicer. Now, he makes his living trying to help other people better plan their Glacier experiences through his website.

He said he loves the park for its large and accessible sub-alpine habitat. He laments that warmer winters are making the conditions up in that habitat less harsh, allowing the tree line to climb higher up the mountains. A higher tree line could also harm populations of sub-alpine animals.

“It would really suck to know like when I was a kid I used to hike out here and see pikas and now I don’t,” he said.

Bramante did end up seeing a pika in the limestone boulder field. He chronicles the day in this video from his blog:

UM Wildlife Biologist Joel Berger said climate change is not necessarily all 'doom and gloom' for these high alpine animals. In the short term, receding glaciers may actually provide more of the types of food preferred by animals like mountain goats. Pika may change their habits, finding places to hide in the heat of the day and foraging more at night or early morning.

Also, he said there may another reason for optimism. Glacial retreat at the northern end of these species’ range may open up more opportunities for the animals in places like Alaska.

“It’s just that most of the people who enjoy seeing wildlife, where our higher population densities are, aren’t going to see it as much,” he said.

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