PORTLAND, Ore. — March 29, 2018 — Cascades Pika Watch is among the first programs awarded grants from the USDA Forest Service’s new CitSci Fund (Citizen Science Competitive Funding Program), the agency announced earlier this month.
The program is a partnership between Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area, Oregon Zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, and several researchers to study the population pressures on the Gorge’s pika population. The U.S. Geological Survey is also partner in the research effort.
An American pika sits on a talus slope, Aug. 12, 2014. U.S. Geological Survey photo by Will Thompson.
The American pika, or Ochotona princeps, looks like a cross between a mouse and a rabbit. Pika live on talus, or loose piles of rocks that collect on steep slopes; the pika found in the gorge are of special interest to scientists because they live at much lower elevations than other pika in the U.S.
In four years, Cascades Pika Watch has trained more than 1,000 volunteers to conduct pika surveys throughout the Cascade range. Many volunteers return to study the same sites every year.
“In the wake of the Eagle Creek Fire, it’s especially important that we collect data on our unique pika population,” Dr. David Shepherdson, Oregon Zoo deputy conservation manager, said.
The 2017 fire burned through the pika study area; citizen scientists will work with the Forest Service to document any changes to the pika population, habitat, and identify factors that played a role in any changes observed.
Data gathered before and after the fire will be especially valuable in helping researchers understand how large disturbances impact the pika, and related species.
“This… grant provides a wonderful opportunity for the public to be involved… (and) hopefully instill a natural resource interest and ethic to other members of their family and friends,” Brett Carre, Wildlife and Fisheries biologist for Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said.
An American pika peeks out from a rocky talus slope in the northern Cascades mountain range in an Aug. 8, 2017 photo. U.S. Geological Survey photo by Aaron Johnston.
Carre joins the Pika Watch project this year as the Forest Service lead for research funded by the grant.
He said citizen science projects, like the pika project, offer to get members of the public interested in, excited about, and more knowledgeable about how science guides forest planning and natural resources management decisions.
“It’s the best way for a conservation ethic to be perpetuated,” he said. “The way to get people to sustain and preserve natural resources is by getting them involved.”
The Forest Service’s CitSci Fund was established this year, under the provisions of the 2017 Citizen Science Act (Section 402 of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act).
“Citizen science” involves the public in scientific research, and offers unique opportunities to capitalize on the enthusiasm of volunteers, educate the public, and engage citizens in science conducted by federal agencies for the benefit of all Americans.
For example, NASA’s Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 project recruits citizen scientists to help analyze images collected by a radio telescope in search of a hypothesized 9th planet orbiting beyond Neptune in our solar system. In it’s first year, participants did not find any new planets, but have found 17 previously undiscovered brown dwarf stars.
For this first year, the Forest Service’s CitSci Fund received 172 applications for funding from citizen science projects across the country.
Each project is co-led by a Forest Service employee and a partner organization staff member, and designed in a manner that requires volunteers provide meaningful contributions to the scientific process – such as project design, data collection, or conducting experiments.
The agency selected six projects to receive up to $25,000 each in CitSci funds.
In addition to the Cascade Pika Watch award, Rocky Mountain Wild and the Denver Zoo also received funds to study a population of American pika in their alpine ecosystem habitat on the White River National Forest in Colorado.
USDA Forest Service — Pacific Northwest region staff report
An American pika collects grass and flowers to stockpile its winter food supplies in this Aug. 9, 2014 photo by Will Thompson, U.S. Geological Survey