The California Fish and Game Commission will vote Friday whether to accept a scientific petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity to protect the American pika under the California Endangered Species Act due to global warming. The American pika is a small mammal related to the rabbit that lives in high-elevation mountain peaks throughout California and the west and cannot withstand warm temperatures. The petition is the first to seek California Endangered Species Act protection for a species threatened by global warming. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a similar petition to list the American pika under the federal Endangered Species Act, as well as petitions to protect other species, such as the polar bear, due to climate change.
The Department of Fish and Game, charged with providing an evaluation of the petition to protect the American pika, has issued a bizarre report which recommends rejecting the petition to protect the pika under state law. The department stated that “mitigating greenhouse gas pollution” and “facilitating adaptation to climate change” are “not in the purview of the commission or department to effect,” apparently repudiating numerous state laws and policies, all of which require the department and commission to consider, and respond to climate change.
“The California Department of Fish and Game’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 Brian Nowicki of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The department cannot be allowed to abdicate its duty to protect California’s plants, animals, and wild habitats.”
The American pika, Ochotona princeps, is highly adapted to survive cold temperatures and live in rocky mountain peaks in the Sierra Nevada and other mountain ranges in the western United States. Pikas are very poorly adapted to dealing with heat and can die from overheating when exposed for just a few hours to temperatures as low as 80°F. 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, and, most directly, causing the animals to die from overheating.
The petition set forth a compelling case for listing the species under the California Endangered Species Act, based on the threat posed by continued greenhouse gas emissions and rapidly rising temperatures in California. Numerous pika populations have already disappeared from the Great Basin as temperatures warm. The department report makes the stunning statement that “neither the petition nor other source offers information supporting the suggestion that the pika in California is being threatened by climatic warming or any other factor or combination of factors….” Documents provided in response to a California Public Records Act request show that in making this statement, the department ignored not only the petition and the scientific literature it cites, but the opinions of scientists whose opinion it solicited on the petition. For example, one scientist wrote to the department: “My bottom line conclusion is that this petition is essentially correct in all important aspects…. In my professional opinion all available evidence strongly supports the proposition that American pikas merit protection under the California Endangered Species Act….”
The California Fish and Game Commission will vote whether to accept the petition at their meeting on March 7. The department’s evaluation is advisory only. At this stage the commission is not deciding whether to actually list the pika as threatened or endangered, but only whether listing “may be warranted.” A positive decision would trigger a one year status review for the pika by the department, which would be followed by a second recommendation and a vote on whether to protect under the California Endangered Species Act.
The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a detailed response to the department report, and will present evidence at the hearing.
“The California Endangered Species Act is the legal Noah’s Ark for imperiled species in the state,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Center for Biological Diversity in this matter. “The threat to the pika from global warming is clear and compelling, so the commission is legally obligated to accept the petition.”
Further information, including the petition, the department’s report, and the Center’s response, is available at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/species/pika/