The Center for Biological Diversity (represented by Earthjustice) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today reached a settlement agreement that will bring the American pika — a small, alpine-dwelling relative of the rabbit that is highly imperiled by global warming — a step closer to receiving protections it urgently needs to survive. The settlement requires the Service to assess whether the pika may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act by May 2009 and, if so, determine whether the small mammal will be designated as an endangered species nine months later.
As a result of the suit, 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 American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a 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 78 degrees Fahrenheit for just a few hours.
“Pika populations are in jeopardy and we can’t afford to delay protections,” 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.
“The pika’s shrinking habitat is a harbinger of what may happen to many species if we don’t address global warming now,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney with the non-profit law firm Earthjustice, which represented the Center in the lawsuit. “With this settlement, we are hopeful that the new administration will take this issue seriously.”
The settlement comes in response to a lawsuit filed in August 2008 that challenged the Service’s failure to make a timely initial finding on a petition submitted by the Center in October 2007 to protect the American pika under the federal Endangered Species Act. When the lawsuit was filed, the Service had fallen nearly eight months behind the legal deadline to evaluate the petition and issue an initial decision on whether the pika may be warranted for protection.
- 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, snowy winters at high elevations, pikas do not hibernate.
- The small mammals spend summers diligently gathering flowers and grasses and store them in “haypiles” for food to sustain them through the long winters.
- Pikas weigh only a third of a pound, but 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.
High-resolution photograph of the pika is available for publication.
For more information on the American pika and a link to the federal petition.