The Center for Biological Diversity, represented by Earthjustice, returned to state court today seeking protection for the American pika under the California Endangered Species Act due to threats from global warming. The conservation groups are asking the court to intervene once again to overturn a second improper decision by the California Fish and Game Commission that rejects a petition to protect the pika under the state law. The commission's decision has blocked protection of the pika at the first stage of the listing process.
"In denying the petition, the commission once again ignored the science showing that the pika is imperiled by global warming and abdicated its duty to protect California's wildlife from global warming," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We urgently need a commission committed to protect California's wildlife in a warming world -- not a commission that wastes precious time denying climate change hurts wildlife."
The California Fish and Game Commission first rejected the Center's petition to protect the pika under the California Endangered Species Act in April 2008, despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the pika is imperiled by climate change in California. Due to a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center, a state superior court invalidated the commission's decision in May 2009, ruling that the commission used the wrong legal standard in rejecting the petition. The commission must accept a petition and begin a status review to determine whether the species should be listed if the information presented would "lead a reasonable person to conclude there is a substantial possibility" that the species could be listed. However, the commission illegally demanded a higher burden of proof.
The state court's May decision ordered the commission to reconsider the petition using the proper legal standard. However, in defiance of the court's order, the commission voted once again in June to reject the pika petition without even reconsidering the scientific information in light of the correct standard. Today's lawsuit challenges this improper decision.
"The court gave the commission a second chance to do the right thing and protect this imperiled species, but the commission persists in disregarding both science and the law," said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice. "The plight of the pika is a warning to humans that global warming is already changing our climate for the worse."
The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a small relative of the rabbit that lives in boulder fields near mountain peaks in California and through 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 during the summer, limiting the amount of time when they can gather food, and reducing the insulating snowpack during winter exposing pikas to cold extremes.
In rejecting the petition, the commission ignored scientific evidence demonstrating the pika is threatened by climate change in California. Evidence before the commission includes a study in Yosemite National Park documenting an upslope range shift of the pika over the past century as temperatures warmed; research showing that pika populations have largely disappeared in California's Bodie Hills in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in recent decades; and a study concluding that global warming will virtually eliminate suitable habitat for the pika in California in this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced. Just across the California border, more than a third of documented pika populations in the Great Basin mountains of northwest Nevada and southern Oregon have gone extinct in the past century, and these losses have been linked to rising temperatures.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that global warming threatens the pika after reviewing the same set of scientific studies as the commission. In response to the Center's petition, the Service determined in May 2009 that the pika may warrant the protections of the federal Endangered Species Act due to threats from climate change, and launched a full status review of the pika. In its May finding, the Service stated:
"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."
The commission has not followed science or the law in other recent listing decisions. Last year a state appeals court struck down a decision by the commission to deny a petition to list the California tiger salamander under the state Endangered Species Act by incorrectly claiming that the petition did not contain sufficient information. The commission also recently voted to deny a petition to protect the Pacific fisher, a rare mammal threatened by logging, but reversed its decision after a public-records act request from the Center revealed that most state biologists involved in the review had supported the petition.
Read the petition (PDF)