On the Pika Trail: A Tree-Hugger’s Foray Into Wildlife Monitoring
Citizen scientist programs are increasingly being used to crowdsource wildlife data collection
“Glacier Dispatch, this is 249 Ouellet. I am beginning my backcountry itinerary.” A voice on the other end of the radio crackles back the time of my departure, and I step onto the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park. In my backpack, I carry a GPS unit and map, four flags, four twelve-meter ropes, a survey chart, tiny envelopes, and a clipboard. Today, I am surveying pika - a tiny, cute, possibly endangered member of the rabbit family - for the park’s Citizen Science Program.
Coordinated by the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center and funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Citizen Science takes everyday tree-huggers and turns them into trained surveyors, capable of independently amassing data about the population and distribution of pikas, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, common loon, and invasive plant species. These data are interpreted by biologists and used for a myriad of purposes, from protecting current populations to predicting future effects of climate change.
This year, about 111 volunteers are currently surveying the 37 goat sites, 41 pika habitats, and 45 loon lakes in the park. The program wasn’t always this robust. Previously, park biologists focused solely on the common loon, a species of interest in Montana and in the park. In 1988, when they first started the volunteer-based annual count program, they were forced to rely entirely on data collected by untrained volunteers. The count would take place on a single weekend in mid-July.
While the volunteer effort made such monitoring possible, the data was often unreliable and varied greatly from year to year. When funding came through in 2005 for an official pilot program for loon surveying, park officials and volunteers alike jumped at the opportunity. The six-week program trained 56 volunteers to count loons and chicks. Goats and pikas were added in 2008 when it became clear that volunteers had not been tapped out in the initial years.
“The idea was and still remains that people are already out there hiking and doing things on their own because they love it,” says Jami Belt, Citizen Science Coordinator. “They’re seeing all these really cool and important things to us, and they don’t necessarily know how to report it or who to tell about it. So we were just trying to capitalize on people who were already out there, to find out what they were seeing, and use that to help understand our population better.”
My plan for the day is to hit the middle three of the five pika survey sites along the Highline Trail, which hugs the western slope of the Continental Divide. The trail is alternately wooded and exposed, and occasionally cuts across fields of scree (loose small rocks that easily give way) and talus (larger boulders at the bottom of a slide). The latter is the ideal habitat of the pika, as it provides cool, shady areas during hot summer days and tiny caves for winter residence. I pass one such field with the intention of surveying three later ones, but quickly return to it after a grizzly blocks further progress along the trail.
The site is about 300 feet uphill from the trail. I gingerly make my way across the loose rock, following the variable pointer of the GPS unit. Eventually I circle in on the site and find the tiny silver marker that indicates its epicenter. With the ropes and flags I measure out the circular perimeter of the site, then return to the middle to look and listen for a few minutes. I hear a few shrill calls from a ground squirrel, and one high-pitched &ldquo eep!” that could possibly be a pika, but I see nothing. I record the time and begin the traverse, a cautious search through the talus field for pika scat, which looks identical to pepper corns, or hay piles, the pikas’ stockpiled food source for the winter. I search each quadrant of the site carefully, using a flashlight to see under larger rocks. After 30 minutes, I have found nothing, a disappointing but not uncommon conclusion to a survey.
For the pika, having any data in terms of habitat location and population size is useful. Pikas are vulnerable to high temperatures, and therefore their presence or absence in an area acts as an indicator for ecological effects of climate change. Pikas will continue to seek cooler locales at higher altitudes as land temperatures rise, but eventually they will run out of mountaintop.
Some parks have already seen a rise in altitudes inhabited by pika, as well as a dip in pika population. As a result, the Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned for the American pika to be added to the Endangered Species List, but all petitions have been denied due to lack of data. In response, the National Park Service has launched the Pikas in Peril Project to record occurrence patterns, predict distribution across the eight participating parks, and forecast the effects of climate change on the future distribution, connectivity, and vulnerability of pika populations.
Although Glacier is not a participating park unit, the data gathered by citizen scientists lends insight to the future of pikas in the park.
Photo by Nicky Ouellet
Data gathered by citizen scientists regarding the common loon is used on a more local level. An accurate annual count of mature loons and chicks in Glacier is crucial for protecting nesting and nursery areas from road construction, campsite relocations, and trail reconstruction. With only 30 to 35 chicks born in the state of Montana each year, growth is slow at best. Glacier is home to nearly 25 percent of that population, and park biologists have come to rely on information from volunteers when communicating with state agencies, like Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and the Forest Service. Volunteers have even been utilized to identify possible nesting and nursery sites for construction crews and instruct how best to proceed with construction.
Glacier Park is by no means the first organization to crowdsource wildlife data collection. This year marks the Audubon Society’s 114th Christmas Bird Count, the longest-running wildlife census. Last year saw 2,360 counts completed for a total of 64,042,902 birds counted. The United Kingdom is home to the world’s biggest survey of butterflies. In 2012, nearly 27,000 people participated in the Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, a monitoring program that seeks to assess the health of the environment through changes in butterfly and moth populations and distributions. Citizen scientists counted 223,000 individual butterflies and day-flying moths across the UK. In Sweden, the population of Swedish brown bears is monitored by a combination of DNA-based scat surveys and counts from moose hunters during the moose hunt. Over two million observation hours are recorded each year, and the results are comparable to the DNA sampling. Having standardized identification and reporting methods, the government can rely on data collected by volunteers to determine proper management of the brown bear population.
While annual fauna counts can paint a piecemeal picture of the impacts of climate change over time, plants provide an almost instantaneous snapshot of the health of an ecosystem. Project BudBurst seeks to harness the power of citizen scientists to record the timing of the leafing, flowing, and fruiting of different plants across the United States. Since 2007, amateur phenologists –- studiers of the timing of specific biological events (such as flowering, migration, and reproduction) in relation to changes in season and climate -– have noted a variety of plants blooming days to weeks earlier than previously recorded. Scientists attribute these earlier bloom and bud dates to changes in temperature and rainfall, factors which are changing as global temperatures rise. By amassing data from a variety of regions in a standardized method, scientists are able to see changes in seasonal patterns and make predictions for the future.
Without an active volunteer base, these studies would be virtually impossible. True, volunteers sometimes provide faulty or incomplete data. They choose which locations to survey and when to conduct a survey without regard for optimal monitoring conditions. Studies citing data collected by citizen scientists often face skepticism from the scientific community, and there are few comparison studies to prove or disprove the trustworthiness of amateurs. But the cost of hiring trained technicians and biologists to conduct each survey would be beyond considerable, and an army of amateurs is free. This is not to say that volunteer work comes without cost. Startup money from grant awards is difficult to come by but necessary for funding citizen science projects.These grants cover everything from materials needed for each survey to hiring a lead biologist or other project scientist who will coordinate all of the volunteers, do a considerable amount of quality assurance and quality control, and conduct data analysis to get research results.
Photo by Nicky Ouellet
I arrive at the next survey site in the full heat of the day, when pikas are most susceptible to temperature stress and therefore most likely hiding under rocks. The site marker is hidden amongst massive boulders. As soon as I reach it, I hear a pika, and, looking up, I see it. The long trek over the treacherous talus field was worth it! I quickly measure and flag the site, trying to disturb the pika as little as possible. I find two fresh haypiles and several piles of scat, each of which I record, photograph, and collect samples of. The pika has fled the scene, but he chirps at me from a distance for the entirety of the survey.
Moments like these are what Belt wishes for her citizen scientists. “[It] gives them continuing motivation to get out there,” she says, noting that the sense of park stewardship and science literacy that volunteers gain through the program are two of its greatest assets.
As I hike back, visitors I pass by ask me why there are flags in my backpack. I tell them about the survey, the plight of the pika, the impact of our industrialization. Everyone is interested and floored by the adorableness of the pika. They want to get involved. I start to feel a sense of hope for the little critters.