Pivotal Week for Pika Protection

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

Note that an update to this story was posted on May 6.

The hamster-sized, high-elevation haymaker known as the American Pika has had its “day” in court–and then some. Now it may be making inroads toward listing as a threatened species, while questions persist over whether that would be premature.

Friday was the deadline for officials at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to decide whether to further consider the pika for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has been pursuing listing for the pika under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. On April 16, a Superior Court judge in San Francisco ruled that the California Fish and Game Commission applied too stringent a standard, when it voted last year to reject the CBD’s petition to list the pika under the California law. The CBD says it expects the court to formally order the state to go back and take a second look at whether the critter deserves protection.

Meanwhile federal wildlife officials had until May 1 to decide whether to formally review the pika’s plight and consider listing it under federal law. A response is expected to be published in the Federal Register this week.

Complicating the case is an apparent difference between the fate of pika populations in the Great Basin, where field research clearly shows pika colonies in trouble, and colonies in the Sierra Nevada range, which may be faring better.

Pika thrive only at high elevations, in the rocky conditions known as talus. Their band of tolerance for temperature is very narrow, so some biologists see them as an indicator species for global warming. Temperatures that humans may consider merely balmy, can be fatal for pika.


Chris Ray, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, has studied pika in the mountain ranges of the Great Basin. She’s identified and ranked several stress factors that pose threats to the animals, including habitat shrinkage and exposure to both heat and cold.

Ray, who presented her latest research at the USGS-sponsored Pacific Climate Workshop last month, is cautious about endorsing an ESA listing just yet, saying: “I do not think there are data indicating that the species as a whole is in danger of extinction, however the loss of isolated populations from the Great Basin has me concerned.”

“I think it’s very reasonable to consider potentially listing some sub-populations of pika.” Ray says that in order to do that, a case would have to be made that there are genetically distinct sub-species of pika. In its petition, CBD claims that five sub-species have been identified in California. But scientists at UC Berkeley and the U.S. Forest Service who have done field research in the Sierra, have said it’s less clear that those colonies are in trouble.

CBD staff biologist Shaye Wolf says a 1995 study found “evidence for four genetic units across the pika range, roughly grouped as Sierra Nevada, Cascades, Southern Rockies, and Northern Rockies. However, better genetic analyses using more sensitive genetic markers (like microsatellites) are necessary to understand pika population structure.”

Wolf says that for its ESA petition, the CBD drew on a 1981 study that used population distribution to break out 36 “subspecies” of pika.

Sierra Snow Season Ends with a Whimper

Surveyor Frank Gehrke takes on last poke at the season's shrinking snow pack. Photo by Craig Miller.

Surveyor Frank Gehrke takes one last poke at the season's shrinking snow pack. Photo by Craig Miller.

When veteran snow surveyor Frank Gehrke stuck his aluminum tube into the thinning snow course at Phillips Station this morning, the “Mount Rose” snow gauge stopped dead a few inches in. He then withdrew a sad little cylinder of corn snow, about the size of a flashlight battery. There was barely a foot of snow left at this measuring station, 6,900 feet above sea level. Water content: 35% of normal. Yikes. Of course, that’s just one station among many surveyed on a monthly basis to help handicap the coming summer’s water supply.

The numbers are in for the season’s last snow survey: On average throughout the Sierra Nevada, water content clocks in at 66% of normal for this date. Last year at this time it was 72% of normal. The southern third of the Sierra came in at 61%.

So even with that hope-lifting late-season burst of precipitation that started in mid-February, we ended up even worse than last year–at least in terms of the snowpack. Some local reservoirs filled up nicely with the soggy spring. The trouble, says Gehrke, is that “The big ones didn’t.”

Some municipal water districts have vacillated on rationing plans for the summer. But the big state and federal systems that supply irrigation water to farms have largely stuck with their drastic cuts in allocations this year.

The bottom line, according to state water director Lester Snow:  “When combined with extremely dry years in 2007 and 2008, low storage in the state’s major reservoirs, restrictions on Delta pumping, a growing population and prediction of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change, it is clear the problems facing California will persist beyond this year and this drought.”

Official drought proclamations have been a source of some controversy since the rain finally began falling in February. The Department of Water Resources has produced a statewide water plan and put it up for comment until June.

Early Runoff More than Theory

This post has been modified based on clarifications by the study’s lead author, which are outlined in her comment, below.

A recent study seems to confirm what many have already surmised: The spring melt from the Sierra snowpack is happening sooner.

To get a handle on the timing of mountain runoff, a team led by Iris Stewart of Santa Clara University pulled together data from 52 stream gauges up and down California. For her study, Stewart says she chose only water courses unaffected by dams and diversions, with at least 20 years of continuous data.

Stewart’s data shows that over the 60 years spanning 1948-2008; 80% of the gauges show the “stream pulse” that accompanies peak runoff, coming consistently sooner in the season–an average of about 10 days sooner, though at least one location had shifted up by more than a month. In fact, combining all of the metrics in the study, Stewart says only one gauge showed a later trend.

The trend seems remarkably consistent. Stewart says that despite a warming trend over the past ten years, she has not seen any acceleration of the trend within that period.

Stewart cautions that there’s more work to do on this and was reluctant to draw broad inferences from the study. Runoff in a particular stream is affected by many factors, including the elevation, slope, aspect (which direction it’s facing), vegetation cover and soil composition. Stewart says further study of these variables will better help identify the most vulnerable streams. But the latest results seem consistent with an earlier study in which Stewart found “earlier runoff on a continental scale.”

Scientists are concerned that as average temperatures rise, California’s mountains will see more rain, less snow–and what snow there is will melt off sooner. Reservoirs can only retain so much runoff at once, so if more of the “frozen reservoir” dissipates earlier in the season, farms and cities stand to be caught short of water before the rains return.

Stewart, an assistant professor at SCU’s Environmental Studies Institute, presented her findings this morning to researchers at the Pacific Climate Workshop (known as PACLIM, the conference does not have a website), a semi-annual gathering of climate scientists doing front-line research around North America. The conference in Pacific Grove is organized by the USGS office in Menlo Park.

Over the course of four days, about 60 researchers will hear findings on the climatic implications for fire, fog, glaciers, the ocean and wildlife, among other topics.

The Insidious Side of Climate Change

If you think climate change just means hotter summers in California, think again. The writer of this week’s guest post argues that we’ll all “feel the heat” in myriad ways, both obvious and subtle.

Climate and Nature
by Anthony Barnosky

Some impacts of climate change in California are pretty obvious, things like rising sea level submerging large parts of the San Francisco Bay region, or drought cutting into our water supplies.  Less obvious, but every bit as important, are impacts on something you probably don’t even know you have: your relationship with nature.

One part of that relationship is the concept of “ecosystem services;” the direct benefits you get from nature.  California’s Climate Action Team highlighted some of the state’s ecosystem services in their recent report.  Examples include the ski trip you may have taken this winter, the salmon fillet you may have bought at the grocery store, or surprisingly, even your hamburger.

barnosky_snowfunSnow will be less, soggier, at higher elevations, and on the ground for fewer days of the winter, melting some of the $500 million-per-year revenues of the ski industry–not to mention melting your favorite ski run.  Altered river dynamics and temperatures will almost certainly cut into the state’s $33-million-per-year salmon industry. Climate-caused loss of forage means that in 2070 California’s cattle ranchers will be losing up to $92 million in comparison to today’s markets, which means higher beef prices at the grocery store.  Combined, the losses in these ecosystem services likely will cost the state’s already suffering economy well over a hundred million dollars per year as we move into the next few decades. And those are just three of many ecosystem services that will be affected.

A second part of your relationship to nature is the species around you, that is to say, biodiversity. Simply put, biodiversity is which species live in a place, and the extent to which those species are rare or common.  In general, biodiversity means more productive and healthier ecosystems, which translates as more benefits to humans that inhabit those areas.  As it turns out, California is a globally recognized biodiversity hotspot, unique in the world.  But biodiversity losses from global warming promise to be severe: one study predicts that two-thirds of the 2387 plant species found only in the state will lose 80% of their range within the century.

barnosky_icylakeThe third part of your relationship to nature is how it makes you feel.  There’s no question: you can’t get the same feeling you get looking at a giant redwood anywhere but in a redwood forest.   Among species that may have little or no suitable climate left in California, however, are its coastal redwoods and sequoias.

Such impacts of climate change on nature are not confined to California.   Many other reports indicate that global warming is redefining our relationship to nature worldwide.  As with other impacts, this one can be partially mitigated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately, but also will require some new management strategies for preserving nature in the age of global warming.  California, in particular, has a lot to lose.

Anthony D. Barnosky is a Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the recently published Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. You can read more on this topic in his blog. Photos by the author.

Barnosky is scheduled to appear Saturday as part of Berkeley’s “Cal Day” activities. His talk is scheduled for noon at the Valley Life Sciences Bldg, Room 2060, followed by a book-signing at the T-Rex (which is hard to miss).

Some Surprises in Fire-Climate Connection

Tonight, San Francisco’s KQED Public Television (HD 9) will air the first collaboration between Climate Watch and Quest, its weekly series on science & environmental topics. “California at the Tipping Point” is a half-hour special that explores the likely affects of climate change on the state. One of those anticipated effects is greater risk of wildfire. This post expands on the program with some of the recent science in that arena.

The conventional wisdom is that a warming planet means more wildfires–and in many cases the conventional wisdom is right. But globally it’s a more complex question.

Just last week, Max Moritz and his team at UC Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research & Outreach published a study that shows widely varied fire response to climate changes around the world. Post-doctoral fellow Meg Krawchuk was the lead data cruncher in the effort, with contributions from researchers at Texas Tech University.

What they found were suggestions of rapid changes in fire regimes, and not all in the same direction. Some places (like most of California) will likely see a spike in the fire hazard, while other regions (like the Pacific Northwest) could see a retreat of wildfire frequency and intensity:

“In contrast to any expectation that global warming should necessarily result in more fire, we find that regional increases in fire probabilities may be counter-balanced by decreases at other locations, due to the interplay of temperature and precipitation variables. Despite this net balance, our models predict substantial invasion and retreat of fire across large portions of the globe.”

Moritz has been stumping for new approaches to fire-climate analysis. He says rather than treat fire strictly as the product of other climate change variables, we should think of it also as a climate driver.

Map shows areas of potential fire advance (orange) and reatreat (blue) by 2010-2039 (medium-high emissions scenario)

Map shows areas of potential fire advance (orange) and retreat (blue) by 2010-2039 (medium-high emissions scenario)

You can use the player below to hear an excerpt from my interview with Moritz, in which he explains the new perspective that he thinks his team’s study brings to the fire-climate connection.

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Survey Says: Drought Still On

It’s still “cause for concern.” That’s how California’s water chief summed up the water outlook for this summer, based on the latest survey. The Sierra snowpack stands at 81% of normal for this date, according to today’s measurements by the state Department of Water Resources.

Chopping up the Sierra Nevada into segments, Northern California fared a little better at 87%. The situation deteriorates as you move southward, with Southern Sierra stations clocking in at 77% of normal.

In most years, the April survey marks the peak of the season’s snow water content.

Ultimately what matters is runoff, or the total amount of water that actually comes off the mountains with the spring melt. And snowpack isn’t necessarily a good predictor of that, as we heard in David Gorn’s story on The California Report and in his blog notes from today.

Just yesterday the Governor’s Climate Action Team released its 2009 assessment of likely climate change effects in California. One  predicted outcome is that ripple effects from water shortages could run up a tab of $3 billion per year. And that’s the rosy scenario, based on being able to quickly move 5 million acre-feet of water to where it’s needed. Eileen Tutt of Cal-EPA cautions that the actual capacity of the current system to quickly redistribute water is closer to 1 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is about the amount of water that a typical household uses in one year.

Handicapping the Snowpack Derby


On the eve of the season’s fourth Sierra snow survey, David Gorn files a report that poses the question: “Is it time for Californians to redefine the term “drought?” His report airs on The California Report Thursday morning and some additional thoughts appear here:

Anybody who’s lived in California for a while has been trained to watch the snow. When the monthly snow surveys come around, we handicap them like they’re the Triple Crown. We all know what’s at stake: when it doesn’t snow, our reservoirs don’t get enough runoff, and we dive deeper into drought.

The snowpack gives us a sneak preview of the coming summer, when our other water sources dry up. The last big snow measurement of the season happens on Thursday. State officials are hoping for the best but preparing for something less than a miracle.

We get about a third of our water from snowpack runoff. But the biggest number in water circles is not the number of inches of snow. It’s the amount of runoff that snowmelt produces. And that can be deceiving, which may explain the caution that always seems to pervade official post-survey pronouncements.

Case in point: Last year at this time, the snowpack measurement was 100% of normal and state officials were breathing easier. And yet the amount of runoff that snow produced last year was only 58 percent of normal, and that’s frighteningly low.

What accounts for the difference? Department of Water Resources meteorologist Elissa Lynn says that the wind can disperse snow, which happened last year (maybe Nevada had a “windfall”). Also, a hot spring can melt snow before its time, resulting in too much runoff being released too early, leaving too little for the summer months.

A deceptively full Stafford Lake reservoir in northern Marin County. Photo by David Gorn.

A deceptively full Stafford Lake reservoir in northern Marin County. Photo by David Gorn.

A little rainy weather can be deceiving, too. Even though some local reservoirs around the state topped off–or nearly so–with the late-season storms of February and March, some of the people served by those same reservoirs may still face rationing this summer. That’s because many communities draw their water from multiple sources, which may include mountain runoff.

Projections this year are for snowpack runoff to clock in at about 70% of normal. That beats than the 52% and 58% of the previous two years but is still cause for concern.

Snowpack Buildup “Too little, too late”

Frank Gehrke at Tamarck Flat last winter.

Frank Gehrke at Tamarack Flat last winter.

That’s how Frank Gehrke described the somewhat improved numbers in the latest Sierra snowpack survey. Gehrke has been trekking up to the snow courses for decades to do the seasonal surveys. Today, the statewide average for water content in the snowpack came in at 80% of normal for this date.

Northern Sierra locations clocked in a bit better at 84%, southern locations at 77%. These are an improvement over last month’s tally, when the state averaged only 61% of normal–but reservoirs are not filling fast enough to make up for the long, dry winter that preceded this recent string of storms.

Not that the recent rains haven’t helped. Oakland, Long Beach, Riverside and San Diego are among several spots that have now had at least 90% of their normal precipitation–and some local reservoirs have been catching up. But up in the Sierra, where it really counts for the Big Picture, they’re not catching up fast enough. The main holding “tanks” for the state’s two major water supply systems, Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, are still at 60% and 55% of normal, respectively.

The recent storms have been relatively warm, too, with precipitation falling as rain all the way up to 7,500 or 8,000 feet. This is precisely the condition that climatologists have been warning about. Snow sticks to the mountain and makes its own reservoir, slowly releasing water well into the spring, as it melts off. But rain at those high elevations is double trouble. It runs off immediately into the rivers and also accelerates the snow melt. That means less water for later in the season, when we really need it.

That may be why the Governor didn’t wait around for today’s numbers. He went ahead and declared a statewide drought emergency on Friday, urging urban water users to cut consumption by 20%.

Boulder Bunnies May Break Ground with ESA

Copyright 2006, Doug Von Gausig

Photo: Copyright 2006, Doug Von Gausig

The American pika has begun a long-delayed journey toward possible listing under the Endangered Species Act.  It could become the first mammal in the Lower 48, let alone California, to be listed as specifically threatened by global warming.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agreed today to review the petition, as part of a court settlement with San Francisco’s Center for Biological Diversity.

Under the settlement, negotiated by lawyers with Earthjustice, the agency commits to a May deadline for determining whether the cartoon-cute alpine critter merits consideration for federal protection.

Pika live in rock colonies only at high elevation (usually above 9,000 feet, though some have been documented lower). They’re well insulated against the harsh mountain environment but can suffer heat stroke at temperatures approaching 80 F.

As alpine temperatures increase with global warming, conservationists worry that the pika will be driven further upslope and eventually out of existence.

Back in the fall of 2007, CBD petitioned for listing under both the federal and California ESA’s. The feds more or less ignored the request. California turned it down flat, saying there was insufficient data to warrant a review. There was also some sentiment on the commission that using global warming as a basis for listing any species would be setting an uncomfortable precedent. CBD sued both agencies and the California case is still in court.

Not all scientists are convinced that the pika’s in trouble. Find out why in our Climate Watch radio feature, Monday morning on The California Report. Listen to the story here.

By the way, “boulder bunny” is a fairly accurate description. They may look like rodents but pika are actually relatives of rabbits and hares.

Use the audio player below to hear Doug Von Gausig’s recording of pika vocalizing.

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Audio recording provided by Doug Von Gausig and

Snowpack Slips Further

bay_2981.jpgAfter the puny amount of precipitation we had in January, you sort of knew this was coming. Sure enough, after the second survey of the season, the statewide average for water content in the Sierra snowpack has slipped further.

As of today’s survey, the state’s Dept. of Water Resources says the snowpack’s water component is 61% of normal for this date. A month ago it was closer to three-quarters. Normally water content increases over the course of the snow season.

It only serves to cement growing fears that the coming summer will make last year’s water restrictions look like a tea party. In an unusually blunt statement, DWR Director Lester Snow said “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history.” Reports are already coming out of the Central Valley of farmers planning to take more acreage out of production this year, and some cities anticipate going to court to get their desired water allocations.

Today’s survey combines manual tests at four alpine locations with readings from a network of electronic sensors. Even more alarming are some of the readings from key reservoirs. Lake Oroville, the main holding tank for the State Water Project, is at 43% of “normal” and just 28% of total capacity.

A developing La Nina condition in the Pacific may divert the jet stream and hold more rain at bay, as the season winds down. There are about two months left in California’s core “wet” season.

Photo by Heidemarie Carle: San Pablo Bay after some sparse January rain.