Early one August morning, on a rocky slope high in Montana’s Gallatin Range, biologist Chris Ray crouched on a boulder with a tiny, sedated furball in her hands. Ray has long, wavy salt-and-pepper hair and was wearing white nitrile gloves to protect the creature, a fist-sized denizen of the western mountains called an American pika.
Ray had captured the animal in a small metal “live trap,” and then coaxed it into a clear plastic tube primed with a cotton swab soaked in anesthetic. “Go to dreamland, buddy,” she’d cooed.
Now, she and a group of assistants sprang into action like a medical team in the operating room. They collected blood and urine samples in toothpick-sized glass vials, used tweezers to pick mites from its ears and collect fecal pellets, slid hair and tissue samples into envelopes, and gave the pika a shot of plague vaccine. Ray talked the group through each step, then weighed the critter and tagged its ear before setting it free among the rocks.