15 January 2008

Endangered Species Act listing for American Pika?

Pika are the spirit of the high country. Especially in the "ice cream cone" (high, rocky, icy) wilderness areas of Montana, they are the very essence of wilderness. Here's a pic of one from the Pintler:

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) calls the American pika (Ochotona princeps) a "canary in the coal mine" when it comes to global warming. Typically found on scree and talus slopes in alpine areas above treeline, this little (Guinea pig size) tail-less Lagomorph (member of the rabbit family) is often called the rock rabbit, cony, and mouse hare.

Anyone who has spent a little time hiking or backpacking in the Rockies knows the pika. They dart in and out of the boulders, cut grasses and forbs in the meadows and carry it back to their haypiles, and chirp out their alarm call when you come too close. If you sit down and remain quiet for 15 minutes or so, they will resume their business and come within a few feet of you.

The CBD has sued the US Fish & Wildlife Service to list the pika under the Endangered Species Act. This is a new legal approach, and would force the government to deal with the challenge of global warming. Global warming harms pika in several ways: (1) they are very temperature sensitive, and cannot survive at temperatures above 75 to 80 deg F; (2) on a warm day in the high country, they must retreat into their dens, and have less time to gather food; (3) the heavy snows of winter insulate them from harsh, cold temperatures; (4) the forbs and grasses they eat are very sensitive to hot, dry weather.

Over the past decade or so, many populations of pika have already winked out, and the survivors have moved higher and higher up the mountain slopes. Because pika live as island populations in high peaks areas, they also seem to have evolved into a large number of genetically distinct subspecies (map from CBD):

Center for Biological Diversity press releases, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/press/american-pika-08-21-2007.html and http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/search.html.
Denver Post article, http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_7963405 .
Entry for American Pika on Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Pika .

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