For Immediate Release, August 21, 2007
Contact: Shaye Wolf, (415) 436-9682 x 301 or (415) 385-5746 (mobile)
California Endangered Species Act Protection Sought for American Pika:
High-elevation Rabbit Relative Could Become California’s
First Animal Driven Extinct by Global Warming
SAN FRANCISCO— Today the Center for Biological Diversity filed a scientific petition with the California Fish and Game Commission requesting that the commission protect the American pika under the California Endangered Species Act due to threats from global warming — the first species for which protection from global warming has been sought under the state law. Higher temperatures caused by greenhouse gas pollution have led to widespread losses of pika populations in recent decades and could eliminate the species from California by the end of this century.
“The American pika is California’s canary in the coal mine,” said Dr. Shaye Wolf, staff biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and one of the primary authors of the petition. “The pika is adapted to life in the cold and thrives on high-elevation mountain ranges in California. As global warming raises temperatures across California, American pikas are disappearing.”
The American pika, Ochotona princeps, is a small, furry, vegetarian mammal related to rabbits and hares, and in the past has been a familiar sight to alpine hikers in the Sierra Nevada and other mountain ranges. The pika is known for its distinctive call and for its frenetic activity collecting grasses and other plants for a “hay pile” that provides sustenance through the winter. Pikas weigh only a third of a pound, must fill their stomachs nine times per day and may collect more than 60 pounds of vegetation to survive the winter.
Pikas are adapted to survive cold temperatures and live in rocky, windswept mountain peaks throughout the western United States. But the animals 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. Typically they avoid this lethal heat by seeking cool, rocky crevices and remaining inactive during warm periods, but this works only up to a point. The relentless rise in temperatures from global warming threatens pikas by shortening the period 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.
Researchers in both Yosemite National Park and the Great Basin have found that the range of the American pika is already retreating upslope as temperatures warm. Today, pika populations in Yosemite are found an average of 400 meters, or more than 1,300 feet, further upslope than they were 90 years ago. Because pikas are unable to move long distances, lower-elevation populations disappear entirely when temperatures become too warm.
Today’s petition asks the California Fish and Game Commission to protect the five subspecies of the American pika that occur in California under the California Endangered Species Act. The petition triggers a several-step process to protect the pika, with an initial finding due in 90 days, followed by a year-long status review to determine if protection under the law is warranted. Because the California Endangered Species Act requires all state agencies to avoid actions that threaten the survival of species protected under the statute, listing the American pika will provide further impetus for California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
“Greenhouse gas pollution is driving the American pika and many other species in California to extinction,” said Wolf. “It’s not too late to save them if we slash greenhouse gas emissions immediately, but we’re running out of time.” Leading scientists such as Dr. Jim Hansen at NASA have stated that we have less than a decade to take action to prevent dangerous and irreversible climate change.
Further information, including the petition, is available at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/species/pika/