February 7, 2010

Pika Status Needs Monitoring

Although not ready for the endangered species list, the American pika will be watched closely by federal scientists who feel the warming climate trend in the West over the next few decades could potentially threaten the climate-sensitive mammal.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally announced its decision on Friday that the American pika, a small mountain-dwelling relative of the rabbit, would not be listed on the Endangered Species Act.

The agency does admit, though, that not much is known about the pika, and further studies will need to be done to determine a future placement for this animal. The agency did admit that studying the pika will be difficult due to its remote mountain habitats.

Environmentalists, who sought out the federal protection for the pika because of global warming, are disappointed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its decision. As conditions warm in the West, pikas move up-slope into cooler regions, but some have run out of cool refuges.

John Isanhart, a biologist with the agency, told The Associated Press on Friday that while low-elevation pikas may disappear as warming trends continue, enough pikas at higher elevations should survive to keep the species from becoming extinct.

According to officials, most pikas in the Rocky Mountains and along the West Coast will be able to survive in the warmer conditions, but the populations in the Great Basin around Nevada, will face a continuing struggle, as many have disappeared in that area already.

Predicting how climate change will affect the pika populations can be tricky, at best. "It's pretty difficult to look into a crystal ball to look where a species is going to be in the next 40 years," said Isanhart, who has aided in the review of the pikas' status over the last year.

Scientists are confident that the West will continue to warm in the coming years, and all pika habitats will feel the strain.

Twenty-two pika sites across the West were analyzed in the review. Officials expect that about half of those areas will see high enough summer temperatures which will put local pika populations at risk. however, according to Isanhart, each site includes pikas that live at both high and low elevations. In most of those sites, it will most likely just be the lower-elevation pikas that face danger.

Another difficult task in studying and gauging pika survival is the vast area in which they thrive. Many pikas seek refuge underground in below-surface rocks and other crevices, which may aid in their survival efforts. Some temperature studies have been implemented in those areas, but more research is needed, agency officials said.

Michael Thabault, assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told The Associated Press that law requires that decisions only be made on the best available information. There is not enough information out there now to make a good decision on the pika status. If new research indicates pikas are losing the struggle against climate change, agency officials said Friday they'll re-examine whether they need federal protections.

In a 2003 study, published in the Journal of Mammology, research showed that 9 out of 25 sampled populations of pika had disappeared in the Great Basin. Scientists concluded that further research must be done to determine if the species as a whole was vulnerable.

Living in the cool mountain regions, the pika is very sensitive to high temperatures, and are considered to be one of the best early warning systems for detecting global warming in the western United States. Scientists report that pikas can die in an hour when exposed to temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit.


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