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Crucial species studied after habitat reduced in fire; Pika Watch has trained more than 1,000 volunteers to study pikas in the Cascades

COURTESY: MICHAEL DURHAM/OREGON ZOO - An American pika peers out of a talus slope in the Columbia River Gorge. The Oregon Zoo will use a grant-funded citizen science project to study changes in the Columbia Gorge pika population. We all know about beavers and sea lions and blue herons and other wildlife that call Oregon home.

But, what about pikas?

American pikas are pint-sized mammals that look like adorable mice and are related to rabbits and known for their distinctive high-pitched calls. (Fun fact: They were the inspiration behind Pikachu.)

They're often found in rugged high-elevation mountain habitats, so those that live in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge are fascinating to scientists because they live at a much lower elevation than their other American counterparts.

They're also a species of particular interest, because — like the canary in the coal mine — pikas are considered to be a sensitive indicator of climate change due to their inability to survive long periods of warm summer weather.

Last fall, residents watched in horror as the Eagle Creek Fire blazed through much of the western edge of the gorge on the Oregon side, near Cascade Locks and Multnomah Falls.

Sadly for pikas, much of their habitat also burned.

Now, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Zoo's Cascade Pika Watch — composed of organizations and individual pika researchers — will launch an effort to survey the damage and collect information about how fire affects pika population trends.

"This grant provides us with an ideal opportunity to take action for wildlife," says David Shepherdson, the Oregon Zoo's deputy conservation manager. "In the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire, it's especially important that we collect data on our unique pika population."

The $24,100 Citizen Science grant is one of four awarded earlier this month to fund efforts that involve partners, volunteers and the Forest Service working together in pursuit of "sound science and meaningful community and volunteer engagement."

The zoo's pika proposal was selected out of 168 qualified projects around the country.

Since its launch four years ago, Pika Watch has trained more than 1,000 volunteers to conduct pika surveys throughout the Cascade range.

In addition to their work with pikas, the Oregon Zoo — with support from the zoo's foundation — has other efforts underway to save endangered California condors, Oregon silverspot and Taylor's checkerspot butterflies, western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs.

@jenmomanderson

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