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American Pika Advances Toward Endangered Species Act Protection

Small alpine mammal imperiled by global warming
May 6, 2009

The pikas of the American West are facing possible extinction as their habitat shrinks due to global warming.
Photo: National Parks Service
San Francisco, CA — 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that it is launching a full status review to determine whether the American pika, a small, alpine-dwelling relative of the rabbit that is imperiled by global warming, warrants the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

The decision comes in response to a scientific petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity in October 2007 seeking protection for the species, followed by an August 2008 lawsuit against the Service for failing to respond to the petition.

The decision, which will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, is available here.

As a result of today's decision, the pika will become the first mammal considered for protection under the Act due to global warming in the continental United States outside of Alaska. The Service's decision comes under court order 16 months after the legal deadline. The Service is now required to decide whether the pika will be designated as an endangered species by February 1, 2010.

"We are pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to take the pika's plight seriously," said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing the Center in the case. "The pika's shrinking habitat is a harbinger of what may happen to many species if we don't address global warming now."

In related news involving the pika, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter Busch ruled from the bench on April 16, 2009 that the California Fish and Game Commission violated state law when it rejected last spring a petition authored by the Center for Biological Diversity to list pika as threatened or endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. The ruling will send the state pika petition back to the Commission for reconsideration.

The American pika (Ochotona princeps) lives 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 78 degrees Fahrenheit for just a few hours. Global warming threatens pikas by exposing them to heat stress, lowering food availability in the mountain meadows where they forage, reducing the amount of time when they can gather food, and reducing the insulating snowpack during winter.

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.

"As temperatures rise, pika populations at lower elevations are being driven to extinction, pushing pikas further upslope until they have nowhere left to go," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Pikas are in urgent need of the protections of the federal and state Endangered Species Acts, which have a proven track record of success in protecting imperiled wildlife."

In the 90-day finding, the Service agreed that global warming threatens the pika, stating:

"Based on the results of these empirical studies, along with predictions of declining climatic habitat suitability, we find that the range of the American pika and the habitat within the range are likely to decrease as surface temperatures increase. …Therefore, we find that the petitioner presents substantial information to indicate that listing the American pika may be warranted as a threatened or endangered species due to the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its range due to impacts attributed to climate change."

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.
  • Pikas do not hibernate during the long, cold, snowy winters at high elevations, but remain under boulder piles protected by their dense, insulating coat of fur. The dense coat that protects them in winter makes them vulnerable to heat stroke during the summer months.
  • 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.
  • Pikas are not only threatened by rising temperatures in the summer, but also by the loss of the insulating snowpack in the winter, which leaves them exposed to cold snaps.

More information on the pika

Photo and Video:

High resolution photo available for print stories.

B-roll available for broadcast.

Lo-res video:


Contact:

Greg Loarie or Brian Smith, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6725
Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5301