Pika

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American Pika Gets Another Shot at Endangered Status

Doug Von Gausig

The American pika can only survive within a narrow temperature band and can suffer heat stroke at temperatures as mild as 80 degrees.

The California Fish and Game Commission is asking for public input on the status of the American pika. The small, alpine mammal has been at the center of a prolonged debate over whether to list it under the Endangered Species Act. If the pika ultimately wins endangered status it would be the first species to do so with climate change cited as a major factor contributing to its decline. The Center for Biological Diversity originally petitioned for the pika to receive protected status, considering it to be a bellwether for climate change in California. 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

(Some) Pika Persist at Low Elevations

Photo courtesy of the Forest Service.

Photo: US Forest Service

American Pika are living at lower elevations and surviving warmer temperatures than previously thought, according to a paper in the journal Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research (available for download at the US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station’s site).

One of the authors, Connie Millar, said she saw pika far more often and in a broader elevation range than she had expected she would. Millar, a Forest Service ecologist, found all those pika using a method she developed to quickly determine if pika are living in places where one would expect to find them.

Pika, cute little rabbit relatives that live in high elevations throughout the West, have been in the news lately. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned for the pika to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2007, citing climate change as a threat to survival of the cold-adapted species. Last month, under a new administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to protect the pika, explaining that though some populations do seem to be in trouble, most are doing fine so far. (Climate Watch has followed the pika story; see previous posts here, here, and here).

This newest study would seem to support the federal decision. But Shaye Wolf, staff biologist with the CBD, says that though the study “provides a snapshot of where pika are now, long-term in-depth studies have found that pika populations are declining.”

The majority of those declining populations are in Nevada’s Great Basin, at relatively low elevations for pika colonies. One paper Wolf cites was recently published in Ecological Applications. Authors Erik Beever and Chris Ray concluded that shrinking pika populations in the Great Basin could be partially attributed to climate change. Pika have an extremely narrow band of temperature tolerance and can suffer heat stroke in temperatures comfortable to humans.

Wolf and Millar are both members of the California Pika Consortium, a newly formed research group. Millar plans to distribute her pika survey to colleagues in the consortium in order to continue gathering data on locations of pika colonies.

Meanwhile, even though the Fish and Wildlife Service has denied federal protection to the pika, CBD is still working on gaining state-level protection in California. CBD biologists consider the pika to be a bellwether species for climate change.

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.

Pika One Step Closer to ESA Listing

 

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

UPDATE: Federal fish & wildlife authorities have decided to proceed with a full review of the American pika, for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. The US Fish & Wildlife Service will formally publish its decision this week, including this summary:

“We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announce a 90-day finding on a petition to list the American pika (Ochotona princeps) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. We find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing of the American pika may be warranted. Therefore, with the publication of this notice, we are initiating a status review of the species, and we will issue a 12-month finding to determine if the petitioned action is warranted. To ensure that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial data regarding this species. We will make a determination on critical habitat for this species if, and when, we initiate a listing action.”

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) first petitioned for listing in 2007, and then followed with a lawsuit a year later, when federal authorities shelved the request.

The significance of this week’s decision, according to a CBD news release, is that “the pika will become the first mammal considered for protection under the Act due to global warming in the continental United States outside of Alaska.”

Last month a San Francisco court ruled that state wildlife officials wrongly denied the CBD’s petition for listing under California’s ESA. So it looks like the little critter will get a fresh review at both the state and federal levels.

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.

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 NatureSongs.com