Cottonwood Pika Expedition
Jessica Castillo (PhD student, Wildlife Sciences)
Clinton Epps (Assistant Professor, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife)
We are researchers from Oregon State University investigating the ability of American pika (Ochotona princeps) to move across complex landscapes. Previous research on pikas suggests they cannot disperse long distances. This, along with the pika’s intolerance of high temperatures, has led to American pikas being a focal species for investigation of the ecological effects of habitat modification and climate change. Our research takes place at ten different National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges across the western United States.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is a particularly interesting site because pikas have persisted there despite the relatively low elevation and high summer temperatures. At first glance this site seems to be an anomaly as pikas typically inhabit high alpine talus slopes. However, the deep fissures and collapsed lava tubes provide year-long refugia from the extreme heat and cold. As you walk among the lava flows in the summer you may notice cool air coming up from these deep cracks. If there is sufficient vegetation to eat and rock structure to live in, you will usually find pika.
We were particularly interested in the Lava Lake property as it is the closest area to Craters of the Moon that could provide more typical talus habitat for pikas. Pikas have never been documented on the Lava Lake property and we did not know what to expect before going there. We spent the day hiking the slopes up Blizzard Mountain from Cottonwood looking for potential pika habitat. It was a beautiful sunny day and we saw fields of blooming lupine, a Golden Eagle, a cow elk, and other raptors. While there was not a large amount of ideal talus (the rocks must be big enough to create spaces for the pika to move in, yet small enough to create the right microclimate), we found old pika sign on every patch of good talus that we encountered!
This is very exciting because it means that pika have been there in the past and might be there again sometime in the future. The closest known currently inhabited pika sites are approximately 35 kilometers north of the Craters of the Moon monument. It is possible that Lava Lake could serve as a stepping stone between the pika population in Craters of the Moon and populations in the mountains to the north, depending on whether enough talus exists to enable pikas to persist more than a few seasons, but the potential for that is unclear until we better understand the distribution of habitat in the area.
We are very grateful to have had the opportunity to explore Lava Lake!