Conservation Photographer and Researcher Focuses on Pikas

For Deirdre Denali Rosenberg, it was love at first sight.

snowy American pika

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg picked up her first camera when she was just a few years old. She’s been upgrading her equipment since then, focusing on nature and wildlife as her favorite subjects.

Now a conservation photographer based out of the rugged San Juan Mountains in the southern Rocky Mountains, Denali Rosenberg is also a researcher of American pikas. Although they resemble rodents, pikas are more closely related to rabbits. Dubbed “rock rabbits” and “whistling hares,” these creatures are threatened by climate change.

Although they are categorized as a species of least concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the group notes that declining populations are unlikely to rebound because they can't return to habitats they've lost due to extreme temperatures.

Denali Rosenberg, who lives in a tiny home in the mountains, talked to Treehugger about her interesting childhood, her fascination with pikas, and how she shares information about these interesting animals.

Treehugger: You had what you call an alternative childhood. What was it like? How much were you exposed to nature and wilderness and creativity?

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg: My parents were quite adventurous and really put a heavy emphasis on the importance of nature and wild places. My earliest memories are of playing on alpine tundra, running wild through aspen groves, and being completely fascinated by the wildlife around me—I have especially strong memories of frogs, loons, and American pikas. My parents knew that I was an “alternative” kind of child and they really let me do my own thing for the most part. I went to a Montessori pre-K through third grade, where literally all I did was write. I never learned math, social skills or whatever else kids learn in those years. I learned to read and write, both creatively and as a form of communication when I was unable to use my verbal skills. 

I was often missing a ton of school to explore and play in nature or visit museums. Museums were heavily emphasized as “just as important as school” because they taught real world and American history—not the public school versions. My family was often on the road driving to the mountains or regions in northern Minnesota and that’s where I had a lot of my education—my mom would use anything as a lesson on the road. I learned a lot of natural history, nature sciences, and, of course, I was always writing. 

And like writing, I was also always taking photos. I received my first camera when I was maybe five or six? And that was after being exposed to photography from the time I was born. My father was an avid photographer and we would have slideshows weekly of everyone’s photos from the latest adventure. I was always taught that nature and creative expression were important and always available to me. They were safe things that were always priorities in our lives, basically above everything else.

American pika calling from a rock

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg

Where did your fascination with pikas start? 

This fascination began as early as I remember. A particularly vivid memory I have, I must have been five, maybe six. My family was doing the Flat Top Mountain hike in Rocky Mountain National Park and it was a very gloomy morning. I stayed behind in an alpine meadow at a certain point and listened to pika calling as a storm built in front of me. And then I saw a pika—putting the call with the being. It was love at first sight.

I had always been obsessed with animals. In fact, I’m sure I had my most treasured stuffed animals with me that day, so to see a wild animal so precious and tiny was very overwhelming to me. It was as if one of my stuffed animals had come to life. I believe from that Flat Top experience on, I was completely in love with pikas. At the time, they were not a species that was talked about much or studied much—this was in the early '90s.

pika in summer

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg

What about the animals is so compelling for you? What are some interesting things about them that people would be surprised to know?

As anyone who explores above treeline will confirm, it’s super harsh up in the alpine! Conditions are wildly extreme and not many animals live in these habitats. I find it absolutely wonderful that such a small mammal can thrive in those extremes. And when you spend a bit of time with pikas, it’s so obvious what characters they are. They are closely related to rabbits, so if you know how personable rabbits can be, pikas are similar. 

And for how extreme their homes are, at elevations often over 12,000 feet, these little buddies don’t hibernate over the winter. Instead, they build hay piles all summer long to feast on during the snowy months. Hay piles are big piles of dried out grasses! Pika collect grass during the summer and sun-dry it. It's a very clever and cool adaptation to survive in the alpine.  

A good thing to know about American pika is that they aren’t particularly social creatures. I’ve heard their calls be compared to meerkats—like there is a sentry pika on the lookout to warn his colony of danger. This is generally inaccurate. American pika have songs that range from happy summer songs to mating songs. They also squeak to get other pikas out of their territory, [to show] aggression and sometimes play. But their communication is not as basic as folks seem to think it is. 

As I’ve studied them, I have been impressed by their ability to adapt. The current and common narrative told about pikas is that they are unable to evolve and adapt to our changing planet. However, I have observed whole pika colonies adapt to totally new biomes in unexpected places. So while yes, they’re certainly in big trouble with climate change, they are not totally unable to adapt to our changing planet.

pika with winter breath

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg

What is the Pika Project and what do you hope to accomplish?

My Pika Project is meant to cover my work with pikas and the way I share this work. I am focused mainly on American pika behavior and documenting what I observe. My work’s main focus is the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado—a range that is extremely rugged, but changing as tourism booms. My hope for the Pika Project is to get people really excited about pikas! They are an animal that is common enough for someone visiting the mountains to encounter or hear, and they are bold enough to be curious about humans. That makes the pika a great way to get folks, kids especially, excited about them, which can then open the door to kids getting into conservation, stewardship, etc. 

The Pika Project was also started because, honestly, not a ton was being done to study pikas when I started it! I figured the least I could do would be to document the species and collect data in my own way, hoping that someday it would be important or useful. That day came sooner than I imagined and the study of pikas has become more common and important in recent years. Which is awesome—and I think it makes the folks who were studying these animals since the '60s really happy.

American pika with grass

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg

You lead pika workshops in the mountains. Who attends and what do you teach people about these creatures?

I would say about 80% of the people taking these workshops are naturalists with kiddos who want to learn about pikas, and working scientists. The remaining 20% are wildlife photographers. I like to teach folks about pika behavior mainly, and how the species is trying to keep up with the changing planet. I also am able to show the plants pikas eat and often get to point out very interesting things, like pika eating lichen off of rocks. 

It’s really cool to see people come up into the alpine curious about pikas, and head down with nothing but admiration for them. When I am with my clients on pika workshops, I also like to teach them about the fragile ecosystems we’re in, what some of the plants are, and what some of the other animals are that we may see. Not too many animals live where American pika do, but quite a few visit those areas looking for a quick bite of food, aka a pika snack!

American pika in the snow

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg

The National Wildlife Federation says the pika could compete with the polar bear as the symbol of the climate change movement. How have you seen pikas feel the impact of changing habitats and warming climates?

I think that would be an accurate assessment—they are definitely extremely impacted by climate change and their numbers are declining pretty rapidly. I have noticed shifts of behavior in the American pika over the years and I would say the most obvious changes are the hours they’re active and where they are permanently moving during drought years. Pika are diurnal, meaning they typically are out during the daytime. But in recent years, I have noticed them being active much earlier in the morning and evening/night. They are more active when the sun is down and the temperatures are cooler. In many areas I study, pikas are under the talus [rock deposits] or snoozing in the shade by noon, coming back out when the sun starts to head back down. 

After massive drought seasons, I have observed whole pika colonies move downslope, towards shade and water. This is huge. They are overheating in the alpine, their foods are drying up, and they are unable to survive. So they move. They set up home along mountain streams. Sometimes in boulder fields, sometimes in the exposed roots of trees. During winter months, pika are also struggling. Snow is a great insulator, and we (as a planet) are getting so much less snow these days. So pika can freeze to death in low snow years. All in all, warming climates are seriously impacting these creatures.

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg

Deirdre Denali Rosenberg

What is your life like, living as a photographer and researcher in a tiny home in the mountains?

I often say it’s a not-very-simple “simple life.” Like I mentioned earlier, the San Juan Mountains are very rugged. They’re also very rural and undeveloped. This is why we chose to live here, but it comes with many realities that so many Americans would never imagine. We don’t have running water without hauling water, for example. We also live in a region that sees very little road maintenance or upkeep [with] our own road being basically a Jeep road, haha.

We don’t really get much for cellphone service. Wi-Fi is often not an option and we rely on wood stoves still for heat. These things were easy trades to agree to for this life, though. We wake up surrounded by mountains and wildlife. I have moments of pure wonder almost daily. This rural lifestyle really allows me to focus on what is important to me without distractions. Much of my life is spent in the field, backpacking, camping, and doing my work. And when I am home, it is peaceful and generally very quiet. It’s a beautiful thing that allows me to thrive.

View Article Sources
  1. "American pika, Ochotona princeps," IUCN Red List.

  2. "American pika hay pile in talus," Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center.

  3. "American pika, Ochotona princeps," National Wildlife Federation.

  4. "Climate Change Indicators: Snowfall," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.