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In Its Struggle Against Climate Change, Pika Gets a Legal Hand

On a warming planet, the American pika, an alpine "boulder bunny," is running out of cool mountain habitat.

Adapted to cold alpine conditions, pikas can die from overheating when exposed to temperatures as low as 78 degrees for just a few hours. These days are becoming more common in the high boulder fields found on mountains throughout the West.

Global warming threatens pikas in multiple ways. It exposes them to heat stress during the summer, lowers food availability in the mountain meadows where they forage, shortens the amount of time when they can gather food, and reduces the insulating snowpack they need during winter as the species does not hibernate.

While this news certainly looks bad for the pika, we do have some good news to report. Earthjustice won an important victory for this species that some are calling the 'polar bear of the lower-48.'

On April 16, a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled that the California Fish and Game Commission must reconsider a petition to protect the pika under the Golden State's Endangered Species Act.

"The court's decision gives the Commission a second chance to do the right thing and protect this imperiled species," said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie, representing the Center for Biological Diversity in both cases. "The plight of pika is a warning to humans that global warming is already changing our climate for the worse."

In 2009 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was required by court order -- thanks to an Earthjustice lawsuit -- to consider listing the pika under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, in February 2010, the USFWS announced that it would deny ESA protection to the American pika.

As temperatures warm, pikas in California have shifted upslope in Yosemite National Park over the past century, and pika populations have largely disappeared in California's Bodie Hills in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. More than a third of surveyed pika populations in the Great Basin mountains of northwest Nevada and southern Oregon have gone extinct in the past century. These losses have been linked to rising temperatures. One recent study concluded that global warming will virtually eliminate suitable habitat for the pika in California in this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced.

"The pika is the fire alarm and this is our opportunity to come to grips with global warming and prevent an extinction crisis," Loarie told the Associated Press.