Groupon project enlists hikers to hunt for elusive pika

Known as a high-strung, high-country lagomorph that's particularly susceptible to dramatic temperature shifts, the American pika has been described as a kind of "canary in the coal mine" for gauging the impact of climate change on alpine species. And an unusual collaboration between a local environmental group and Groupon's philanthropic arm kicking off this week seeks to recruit citizen scientists to help track the wily -- and possibly vanishing -- pika.

This week, Groupon subscribers can turn to the site's Denver Grassroots page and pledge ten bucks or more to help fund Rocky Mountain Wild's effort to recruit and train volunteers to hike Colorado talus fields and conduct what's being described as "straightforward yet scientifically rigorous surveys on the presence/absence of the American pika." The campaign continues through June 3 and may be extended, depending on response.

All the cash raised goes to training sessions, custom maps, GPS gear and other equipment provided to the volunteers. The idea is to take stock of where the pika seem to be thriving and where they seem to be ditching out like -- well, rats -- because of a changing environment.

According to Rocky Mountain Wild's Megan Mueller, the pika's fast metabolism makes the critter vulnerable to overheating when summer temperatures in the talus fields start pushing upwards of 75 degrees. They don't hibernate in the winter, she points out, relying on insulating snowpack to keep their body temperatures from dropping too low. But not enough snow in the winter or exceptionally hot summers in the high country can be fatal.

"There's some data that indicates they're winking out at lower elevations," Mueller says. "We're hoping to get more extensive information."

For information about the need for long-term data, check out the official site for the Front Range Pika Project.

Editor's note: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the pika as a rodent, not a lagomorph. We regret the error.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
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