San Francisco, CA
Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied Endangered Species Act protection to the American pika, a small mountain-dwelling mammal that is on the frontlines of global-warming-driven endangerment. The decision was required under a court order in a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by Earthjustice, against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to respond to a scientific petition submitted by the Center in 2007.
“This is a political decision that ignores the science and the law,” said Center biologist Shaye Wolf. “Scientific studies clearly show that the pika is disappearing from the American west due to climate change and needs the immediate protections of the Endangered Species Act to help prevent its extinction. Instead, the Interior Department has chosen to sit on its hands instead of taking meaningful action to protect our nation’s wildlife from climate change.”
“We’ve already lost almost half of the pika that once inhabited the Great Basin, and scientists tell us that pika will be gone from 80 percent of their entire range in the United States by the end of the century,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the Center. “To conclude that this species is not threatened by climate change is an impossible gamble that we can’t afford.”
The pika is adapted to cold alpine conditions and can die from overheating when exposed to temperatures as mild as 78 degrees Fahrenheit for just a few hours. Rising summer temperatures threaten pikas with heat stress and reduce their ability to gather food and move to new areas, while diminished snowpack in winter leaves them vulnerable to cold snaps.
Rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas pollution have already led to dramatic losses of lower-elevation pika populations, pushing pikas upslope until they run out of habitat. More than a third of documented pika populations in the Great Basin mountains of Nevada and southern Oregon have gone extinct in the past century amid rising temperatures. Two separate studies have found that climate change will eliminate suitable habitat and push pikas toward extinction throughout much of the western United States in this century if greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced.
In a January 2010 article in the journal Bioscience, pika scientists highlighted the pika’s vulnerability to climate change:
“There’s enough evidence to say that pikas are going to be among the first mammals to be adversely affected by climate change.”
“The problem with global warming is that if [pikas] lose [their] snowpack, which provides insulation in winter, they freeze to death, and if the ambient air temperature heats up too much in summer, then they fry. That’s the challenge…They’re already at the top of the mountain. If you heat it up substantially, there’s no place for them to go.”
The Obama administration has blocked Endangered Species Act protection for other climate-change-imperiled species, and has made little progress on overall listings. Last year, the Obama administration denied listing to the spotted seal off Alaska despite the rapid melting of its sea-ice habitat; it also upheld the Bush administration’s decisions to deny listing to the climate-change imperiled ribbon seal and emperor penguin. During its first year in office, the Obama administration listed only two species under the Endangered Species Act compared to an average of eight species per year under Bush and 65 species per year under Clinton.
More background on the pika
- Pikas live in boulder fields surrounded by meadows on mountain peaks. They avoid summer heat by seeking the cool crevices under the boulders and by remaining inactive during warm periods.
- Pikas do not hibernate, but remain under boulder piles during the long, cold, snowy winters at high elevations, 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. Though they weigh only a third of a pound, the tiny animals must collect more than 60 pounds of vegetation to survive the winter.