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American pika
The Seattle Times, May 6, 2009

Feds: Mountain-dwelling pika may need protections
Climate change may be threatening a tiny mountain-dwelling mammal and endangered species protections may be needed to ensure its survival, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday.

By Mike Stark, Associated Press writer

SALT LAKE CITY — Climate change may be threatening a tiny mountain-dwelling mammal and endangered species protections may be needed to ensure its survival, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday.

The agency made its findings based on environmentalists' petition to have the American pika protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Federal officials said the listing may be warranted because of threats from climate change. Federal officials will now launch an in-depth review of the species and submit findings by Feb. 1, 2010.

If it's eventually listed, the pika could be the first species in the lower 48 states to get protections primarily because of climate change. Steps taken to protect the pika could also help other species affected by climate change, said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Oakland, Calif.-based Earthjustice who has worked on pika lawsuits pressing for protections.

"The pika is the fire alarm and this is our opportunity to come to grips with global warming and prevent an extinction crisis," Loarie said.

The pika - a furry, big-eared relative of the rabbit - mostly dwells in high, rocky mountain slopes in 10 Western states. As the West warms, scientists say some pikas have tried to move upslope to find cooler refuges but have run out of room.

Part of the problem is that the pika's peculiar traits are suited for alpine conditions: dense fur, slow reproductivity and a thermal regulation system that doesn't do well in the heat. Even brief exposure to temperatures of 78 degrees or warmer can cause death.

Some pika populations seem to be OK but not all.

A study in 2003 found six of 25 previously known pika populations in the Great Basin had disappeared, primarily because of the effects of warming temperatures.

Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental group that petitioned to have the pika protected, said subsequent studies indicate other populations in the Great Basin have disappeared. Formal results of those follow-up studies have not been published.

"The science is really clear and compelling that the pika is imperiled by global warming," Wolf said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged there's "substantial information" indicating climate change may threaten the pikas' habitat and range.

"The Service knows that climate change is real. It is the biggest conservation challenge of our time," said Diane Katzenberger, a spokeswoman for the agency in Denver.

The center asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the pika in 2007 and later threatened to sue over the issue. In February, a legal settlement required the agency to respond to the petition by May 1. The findings were finalized on Friday and released Wednesday.

Extending federal protections to the pika primarily because of climate change would likely lead to larger policy discussions about how best to mitigate those effects.

The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a threatened species in 2008, the first to be protected because of the threats of global warming. Officials quickly completed regulations, though, to ensure the listing couldn't be used to block projects that contribute to global warming. That decision is now being challenged in court.

Environmentalists say the pika listing should be part of a sweeping movement to curb emissions that most climate scientists say is contributing to global warming.

Katzenberger said her agency is in the midst of developing a five-year strategic plan outlining a plan for how it will deal with climate change.

The pika lives in parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton