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Alpine 'Boulder Bunny' Imperiled by Global Warming

State and federal lawsuits filed to protect American pika
August 19, 2008

American Pika
Photo: Earthjustice
San Francisco, CA — 
Conservation groups filed two lawsuits today seeking protection of the American pika, whose survival is imperiled by global warming. The groups went to state court seeking protection of the pika under the California Endangered Species Act and to a federal court seeking protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The American pika, Ochotona princeps, is a small relative of the rabbit whose squeaky calls are a familiar companion to alpine hikers. Pikas live in boulder fields near mountain peaks in the western United States. Adapted to cold alpine conditions, pikas are intolerant of high temperatures and can die from overheating when exposed to temperatures as low as 80°F for just a few hours.

"The pika is the American West's canary in the coal mine," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "As temperatures rise, pika populations at lower elevations are being driven to extinction, pushing pikas further upslope until they have nowhere left to go."

Rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas pollution have already led to dramatic losses of lower-elevation pika populations. More than a third of documented pika populations in the Great Basin mountains of Nevada and Oregon have gone extinct in the past century as temperatures warm, and those that remain are found an average of 900 feet further upslope. According to climate experts, temperatures in the western United States in this century will increase at least twice as much as they did in the past century. This could eliminate the pika from large regions of the American West.

"Climate change is likely to drive a third of the world's species to extinction. Worse, it's the species living on mountaintops, which until now have been free from human impact, that will be hardest hit," said Dr. Stuart Pimm, professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University. "The American pika is an obvious example of such a species at considerable risk from climate change," said Pimm, who has spent decades studying the global loss of biological diversity.

In April 2008, the California Fish and Game Commission denied a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to protect the pika under the California Endangered Species Act. A Fish and Game report issued earlier this year stated that "mitigating greenhouse gas pollution" and "facilitating adaptation to climate change" are "not in the purview of the Commission or Department to effect," despite numerous state laws and policies that require the agencies to consider and respond to climate change.

One of the two cases filed today by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center challenges the California Fish and Game Commission's denial of the pika petition.

"The California Fish and Game Commission's attempt to bury its head in the sand rather than deal with the impact of global warming on wildlife is an embarrassment to our state, which is a leader in climate policy," said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the Center in the lawsuits. "The Commission is not allowed to abdicate its duty to protect California's plants, animals, and wild habitats, and neither is the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service."

The second case challenges the Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to make a timely initial finding on a separate petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in October 2007 to protect the American pika under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Fish & Wildlife Service has not taken any action on this petition even though it was required to issue an initial determination within 90 days of receiving the petition.

Pika Facts:

  • Pikas live in boulder fields surrounded by meadows on mountain peaks. They avoid the summer heat by seeking the cool crevices under the boulders and by remaining inactive during warm periods.
  • Despite the long, cold, snowy winters at high elevations, pikas do not hibernate.
  • Pikas spend summers diligently gathering flowers and grasses and store them in "haypiles" for food to sustain them through the long winters.
  • These "boulder bunnies," which weigh only a third of a pound, must collect more than 60 pounds of vegetation to survive the winter.
  • Global warming threatens pikas by shortening the time available for them to gather food, changing the types of plants that grow where they live, reducing the insulating snowpack during winter, and, most directly, causing the animals to die from overheating.

Further information on the pika.

Photo and Video:

High-resolution photo available for print stories.

Legal Documents:

Read the petition filed in state court (PDF)

Read the petition filed in federal court (PDF)


Contact:

Greg Loarie, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5301
Stuart Pimm, Professor of Conservation Biology, Duke University, (919) 613-8141