2021 Pika Patrol, Part 2

Last week my husband and I made our way up to the other pika site outside of Leadville, and above Turquoise Lake we’ve been monitoring for the Colorado Pika Project.

The day before the high country got a dusting of snow, but our day started with beautiful clear skies. Perfect for a moderately challenging 3 mile, 700 foot elevation gain, hike up Halfmoon Creek Trail.

Unfortunately, we began to encounter problems before we even got to the trail head. We were stopped by a barricade as we drove up the access road. The Forest Service was doing extensive trail maintenance, and personal cars were not allowed any further for the foreseeable future.

Well.

This was a problem. The only question was how much of a problem.

I looked at the trail mapping program I had on my cellphone, which showed us where we were, and where we wanted to be. But on big problem with maps on cellphones is that it’s really hard to figure out the scale of things. As we were staring at the tiny screen, a couple approached us. They were a father-daughter team who were going to do a section of the Colorado Trail. We chatted with them about the problem of how far it was to the Halfmoon Creek trailhead. The daughter worked her magic on her cellphone, and quickly filled us in that she thought that we were only about a mile short of the trailhead.

Well …

That was doable. We had been expecting a 3 mile hike. Five miles (extra mile in, extra mile out) wouldn’t be too bad. We’d be tired, but the big elevation gain was only at the end, so we decided to go on.

We set off down the trail, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of being in the Colorado high country on a glorious fall day.

Beaver dam with pond behind it.
Grey squirrel scolding us from a tree.
Aspen growing in an old avalanche chute.

What we didn’t see was the trailhead to actually start up to the pika site. And we were beginning to get tired, hot and thirsty.

Finally, we stopped, and looked at the cellphone GPS again. We had come 2 miles already, and had about another mile to go before we got to the trailhead. Then we had a mile and a half of increasingly steep terrain to get to the little critters.

WHAT???!!!

Upon further reflection, we realized that the “one extra mile” the more cellphone savvy daughter reported was to get to the Colorado Trail trail head, not Halfmoon Creek trail head. If we continued to the site, it would be a 9 mile hike and 1400 feet elevation gain, not 3 miles and 700 feet.

So now we had a decision to make. The entire point of the 3-day trip to the mountains was to get up to the site to count pika. But we were hot and tired, and had the longest, hardest part of the hike to go.

For better or worse, my husband and I were in agreement that we’d come this far, we might as well get the job done.

And so on we went.

It was almost 1:00 when we finally stopped at the base of the steepest part of the hike and ate lunch. Normally we like to eat lunch in the middle of the scree field, so we can let the pika get used to us for a few minutes, but that day, we both needed to refuel before we went further.

The pika site is actually in the trees in the center of the photo. The treeless area to the right is an avalanche chute.

As rested and refueled as we were going to get, we climbed the last half mile over and 480 feet up to the scree field in the center of the photo.

And we found …

…nothing.

We rummaged around for 45 minutes before we started down, and all we found was some old scat.

As you can imagine, it was a discouraging hike back down. But my husband and I, being amateur naturalists, talked about it and came to several (amateur) conclusions.

  1. Last year when we were at this site (Pika Patrol, Part II), we only found a couple of pika.
  2. This site has never been great habitat for pika — it is in the trees, with forest around. They like grasses, and we didn’t find much grass in the scree field, which means that they have to go through the predator-haunted trees to forage.
  3. As I said in 2021 Pika Patrol, Part 1, we think it has been a hard couple of years for pika.

Still, we missed seeing the little critters.

When we got home, I sent an email to Alex Wells, Community Science Coordinator of the the Colorado Pika Project at the Denver Zoo, asking him about overall population trends for pika. He said it was still a little early to draw many conclusions for this year, but so far they aren’t any significant declines in pika along the Front Range, but they might be seeing more sites with only old pika sign in Rocky Mountain National Park and the White River National Forest on the Western Slope. That fits with last year’s drought that has devastated the areas west of the Continental Divide.

With a Global Climate Change induced La Nina climate event building off the West Coast, the drought is predicted to intensify, which doesn’t bode well for the pika.

Published by Amy Law

Amy Law is a science geek. She feels about science the way some people feel about music, or art, or sports – a total and complete emotional connection. She thinks in science. For Amy, there’s nothing better than helping people see the beauty of science as she does. She loves to untangle a complicated subject into its parts, explaining it so that anybody can understand what’s happening. Let her show you her world...

2 thoughts on “2021 Pika Patrol, Part 2

  1. That’s a BIG shift in commitment, Amy, and I applaud you and your partner for forging ahead. I’m so sorry you didn’t see any pika and understand how you’d feel demoralized as you hiked back down. Thank you for your contribution to this project!

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