Court Tells California to Reconsider Protecting Pika from Climate Change

Federal government advanced pika protection last week


Greg Loarie, Earthjustice, (510) 550-6700
Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 632-5301


San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter Busch today issued a written order invalidating the California Fish and Game Commission’s rejection of a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to list the American pika under the California Endangered Species Act. Today’s court order will send the state listing petition back to the Commission for reconsideration.

Read the order here.

“The court’s decision gives the Commission a second chance to do the right thing and protect this imperiled species,” said Greg Loarie of Earthjustice, who represented the Center for Biological Diversity. “The plight of pika is a warning to humans that global warming is already changing our climate for the worse.”

In August 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a scientific petition to list the pika in California under the state Endangered Species Act due to threats from global warming. 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, 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.

As temperatures warm, pikas in California have shifted upslope in Yosemite National Park over the past century, and pika populations have largely disappeared in California’s Bodie Hills in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains in recent decades. 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. One recent study concluded that global warming will virtually eliminate suitable habitat for the pika in California in this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced.

View a map here.

“Scientific studies clearly show that the pika is imperiled by global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “In denying the petition, the Commission ignored the science and abdicated its duty to protect California’s wildlife from global warming. Now the Commission has a renewed opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to protecting California’s vulnerable species like the pika from the climate crisis.” 

The court found that the Commission used the wrong legal standard in evaluating the petition to list the pika. The Commission must accept a petition 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 rejected the petition by unlawfully demanding that petitioners satisfy a higher burden of proof. 

Last year a state appeals court struck down another 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.

If the Commission accepts the pika petition, it would commence a year-long scientific review and public process to determine whether the species should be listed in California. 

In response to the Center’s federal petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on May 7 that the pika may be warranted for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and launched a full status review to determine whether the pika should be protected across its range.

Today’s written court order resolves a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by Earthjustice, on August 19, 2008 — Center for Biological Diversity v. California Fish & Game Comm’n, No. CPF-08-508759.

For further information on the pika visit here.

Photo and video:

High-resolution photo available for print stories here.

B-roll available for broadcast. View lo-res version here.
Contact Brian Smith, Earthjustice press office, (510) 550-6714


Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.