FoCo Now
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FoCo Now

The American pika faces a gloom future without federal protection

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will not list the pika on the Endangered Species Act, even as pikas are vanishing throughout their range.

(Image|Cody Looman|Our Colorado through your photos)

The American pika is a small and charismatic mountain-dwelling mammal. It resides in the same family as the rabbits and hares, and is often heard before it is seen. Pikas are loved by all who stumble across their rock pile habitats, but within the next century, these outspoken mammals could be silenced by climate change.

Since pikas live in cold, high elevation habitats, they are extremely sensitive to heat, unable to survive temperatures above around 78 degrees F. They have been disappearing from the warmest parts of their western North American range nearly overnight, in places like the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevadas where they were spotted only a couple of years prior to surveying. They are also an early-warning, or indicator species, meaning their reaction to the environment gives us insight into how surrounding organisms might react. This animal is one that should be bringing about policy changes before it’s too late for them, and eventually for other climate-sensitive species. So why are they not listed on the Endangered Species Act?

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned in 2007 that the American pika be listed under the ESA due to risk of extinction from climate change. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the pika due to lack of funding and other species priority. A lawsuit was filed, prompting the Service to investigate whether the pika warranted protection, but in 2010, it was decided that the pika did not. The Service defended its decision by saying that only certain populations of pikas were at risk from climate change, with the rest being safe for now and the foreseeable future.

Although many populations of pikas are stable, this does not negate the evidence that shows pika extirpations across their previously suitable habitat. This trend will continue if no action is taken, and the pika will be forced to migrate higher or physically alter its bodily functions to survive the heat. Both of these requirements face further obstacles.

Pika populations are already small and isolated, located in rocky slopes which makes dispersal difficult, and climate change is exacerbating all of these things. This has a domino effect, leading to more inbreeding within the small and isolated populations, which in turn reduces genetic diversity and the ability to adapt to the surrounding environment. One study concludes that “low levels of genetic variation may increase risks of extinction.” Extinction is the worst case scenario, but ecologist Chris Ray of the University of Colorado stresses that “within the next 100 years” pikas could be extinct if we don’t act now.

Pikas being an indicator species and a montane mammal–living in mountain regions which are more affected by climate change–highlights the need for them to be protected. If we can’t get a climate sensitive mammal that is showing signs of struggle to be listed, what will happen to the rest of earth’s biodiversity? The Fish and Wildlife Service ought to take climate change into account when deciding what species will be listed under the ESA. If that doesn’t work it is up to the public to rally around those animals that are in most need of protection, as they did with the polar bear and succeeded. Otherwise, as one environmental law expert J.B. Ruhl puts it, “the pika is toast.”

If you don’t want the pika to become toast, check out the Front Range Pika Project, and see what you can do.



Colorado State University JTC 326 students dive into the Fort Collins scene.

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Holly Murfey

I'm a conservation biologist and writer, and this page showcases my work on the American pika.