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Report: California a “Conservation Hotspot”

A report pinpoints critical areas in California for protecting critters

The North American pika like the protection and cool refuge of high-elevation talus slopes. (Photo: US Forest Service)

California is one of five places on earth with a Mediterranean climate. It has enough endemic plant species to be its own “floristic province.” It’s also what biologists refer to as a biodiversity hotspot. So it’s not surprising that a report by the Endangered Species Coalition includes three places either completely or partially within California in its list of ten of the most important locations to protect endangered species.

The report highlights areas across the U.S. that are most threatened, such as the Everglades, and places that provide home to the greatest number of endangered species, like Hawaii. Continue reading

Climate News Roundup

Geoengineering: Use it or Lose it?

Just as delegates from 193 nations agreed to a voluntary moratorium on geoengineering research last week at the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, the US House Science and Technology Committee issued a report outlining how federal geoengineering research could be pursued in the United States. The international agreement to ban the research does not apply to the US, which has not ratified the CBD. (More from The Washington Post and Climate Central.) Continue reading

Another Mountain Critter Confronts Climate Change

The San Bernardino flying squirrel is a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel, pictured here. (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed petitions with the US Fish and Wildlife Service today to protect four mountaintop species from climate change, including the San Bernardino flying squirrel.  The CBD is requesting that the species be listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and that critical habitat be designated.

The San Bernardino flying squirrel is a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel. Historically it has thrived in the high-elevation conifer forests of Southern California, in just two locations: the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains.  But according to Shaye Wolf, a biologist at CBD, the species has likely disappeared from the San Jacinto Mountains in the past few decades. Studies indicate that the remaining population is isolated in the San Bernardino Mountains, which is bordered on the north by the Mojave Desert, a formidable barrier to migration. Continue reading

No Protection for American Pika

American Pika, Photo: Doug Van Gausig

American Pika, Photo: Doug Von Gausig

The high-alpine rabbit relative, the American pika, does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a ruling Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The decision was required by a court order stemming from a lawsuit brought by the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity against the agency, for failing to respond to a petition submitted by the Center in 2007.

The CBD petition cited climate change as the cause for population decline in pika populations in the mountains of Nevada’s Great Basin. Because the creatures can die from overheating at temperatures as low as 78 degrees, and research suggests that a warming climate has led to major losses in lower-elevation populations, pushing pika to migrate to higher elevations. Some biologists are concerned that if temperatures rise high enough, they may reach the mountain-tops and run out of hospitable habitat.

“By not listing the pika, the decision is not respecting the best available science,” said Shaye Wolf, a staff biologist at the CBD. “The science is very clear. Scientists in the Great Basin will tell you that their research is showing that pika are disappearing and that the losses are linked to climate change: heat stress in the summer and loss of snowpack in the winter.”

Wolf said that the federal agency is required to use the “best available science” in making its ruling. She said that the CBD may challenge the decision on this basis.

“The (government’s) interpretation of the studies is that even though pika are disappearing and will continue to disappear, they will be able to cope,” said Wolf. “That’s not consistent with what we’re seeing. It’s a bizarre argument that pika will adapt. There’s no basis for that claim.

Had the federal agency ruled the other way, the pika would have been the first animal to make the endangered list as a direct result of climate change.  Last year, the Obama Administration denied a similar petition for the Alaskan spotted seal, Wolf said.

The scientific community itself is split about whether the pika warrants a federal listing. While research shows that some populations of pika are declining, such as in the Great Basin, not everyone agrees that the entire species is facing extinction.

The CBD also has a pika case still pending at the state level.  The California Fish and Game Commission has twice denied CBD requests for a status review of the American pika. The organization is currently challenging the state’s second denial.

For more background on the CBD’s efforts to list the pika, see Craig Miller’s blog posts from May 2009.

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.