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American Pika Denied Endangered Species Protection

WASHINGTON, DC, February 8, 2010 (ENS) – The American pika does not meet the criteria for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday after completing a review of the species’ status and evaluating current and future threats to the small, mountain-dwelling mammal.

Although the Service says the American pika is “potentially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in parts of its range,” the Service has decided that despite higher temperatures pikas will have enough suitable high elevation habitat to prevent them from becoming threatened or endangered.

“We have completed an exhaustive review of the scientific information currently available regarding the status of the American pika and have analyzed the potential threats to the species,” said Steve Guertin, the Service’s director of the Mountain-Prairie Region. “Based on this information, we have determined that the species as a whole will be able to survive despite increased temperatures in a majority of its range and is not in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future.”

The Service analyzed potential factors that may affect the habitat or range of the American pika including climate change, livestock grazing, invasive plant species and fire suppression. Climate change was identified as the only potential threat to the species.

The American pika inhabits loose rocky areas in alpine and subalpine mountains extending south from central British Columbia and Alberta into the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

The historical range of the species includes California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico.

An American pika in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico (Photo by Sally King courtesy National Park Service)

A key characteristic of the American pika is its temperature sensitivity. Pikas cannot tolerate much higher body temperatures than their norm of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, the species is found at progressively higher elevations, where cooler temperatures are found, as one moves south through the range of the species. In Canada, populations occur from sea level to 9,842 feet, but in New Mexico, Nevada, and southern California, populations rarely exist below 8,202 feet.

Rising temperatures threaten pikas by shortening the period available for them to gather food, changing the types of plants in the alpine meadows where they feed, shrinking the size of alpine meadows, and reducing insulating snowpack that protects them from cold snaps in the winter. Most directly, warming can also cause the animals to die from overheating.

Pikas are closely related to rabbits and hares. The five subspecies of American pika are classified by the regions they inhabit: the Northern Rockies, the Southern Rockies, the Coastal Mountains and Cascade Range, the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin, and the Uinta Mountains and Wasatch Range of Central Utah.

The Service determined that the Great Basin population could be affected by climate change along with some lower elevation American pika populations outside of the Great Basin. These populations could be affected because they represent lower elevation sites that will have correspondingly higher mean temperatures by mid-century.

“We expect to continue to see pikas disappear from some low-elevation habitats. However, these losses will not be on the scale that would cause any species, subspecies or distinct population segments of pika to become endangered in the foreseeable future,” the Service said in its determination.

In October 2007, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Service to list the American pika and conduct a status review of each of the recognized subspecies of American pika. The Service advised CBD that the petition could not be addressed at that time because existing court orders and settlement agreements for other listing actions required nearly all of the listing funding.

Subsequently, the Center filed a notice of intent to sue over the Service’s failure to publish a petition finding. The Service then entered into a settlement agreement requiring the Service to submit a petition finding to the Federal Register by May 1, 2009, and to submit a status review finding to the Federal Register by February 1, 2010. This determination was submitted on February 5, 2010.

“This is a political decision that ignores science and the law,” said Center biologist Shaye Wolf. “Scientific studies clearly show that the pika is disappearing from the American West due to climate change and needs the immediate protections of the Endangered Species Act to help prevent its extinction. The Interior Department has chosen to sit on its hands instead of taking meaningful action to protect our nation’s wildlife from climate change.”

“We’ve already lost almost half of the pikas that once inhabited the Great Basin, and scientists tell us that pikas will be gone from 80 percent of their entire range in the United States by the end of century,” said Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, a public interest law firm representing the Center. “To conclude that this species is not threatened by climate change is an impossible gamble that we can’t afford.”

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