So long Pika, we hardly knew ya

Another species on the brink — thanks to human-caused global warming — is abandoned

Image: American pika

The American pika, a mountain-dwelling mammal in the West, does not do well in temperatures above 78 degrees.

I typically focus on what the science tells us about the catastrophic impacts humans face if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.  If self-preservation won’t motivate us, whatever empathy we can muster for our furry friends surely can’t.

Still it seems to me that the apparently ‘expendable’ pika deserves at least one blog post, no?  Here’s the story, from MSNBC:

SALT LAKE CITY:  Federal officials have decided not to provide endangered species protections to the American pika, a tiny mountain-dwelling animal thought to be struggling because of warming temperatures….

A copy of the decision listed on a federal Web site on Thursday says while some pika populations in the West are declining, others are not. The agency says Endangered Species Act protections are not warranted….

“This is a political decision that ignores science and the law,” Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “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.”

A furry, big-eared relative of the rabbit, pikas live mostly in high, rocky mountain slopes in 10 Western states.

Temps above 78 can be deadly
It is well-suited for alpine conditions, with dense fur, slow reproductivity and a thermal regulation system that doesn’t do well in the heat. Even brief exposure to temperatures of 78 degrees or warmer can cause death.

As the West warms, scientists say some pikas have tried to move upslope to find cooler refuges but have run out of room.

Why Obama won't protect the pikaKeep climbing, Pika.  I’m sure there are enough tall mountains to ensure that a few of your populations don’t decline for a few more years.  But don’t worry, I’m sure when they are all in decline, they’ll put you on the list, though it probably won’t be very exclusive then (see “Bush launches Unendangered Species List“).

WWF has more on this “small flower-gathering relative of the rabbit,” a “canary in the coal mine,” for global warming because it is ill-suited for adapting to rapid climate change:

The pikas’ particular vulnerability to global warming is due to several factors. American pikas cannot easily migrate in response to climate change, as their habitat is currently restricted to small, disconnected habitat “islands” in numerous mountain ranges. Although talus within mountain ranges is often more continuous, this is not always the case; some ranges only have habitable talus at lower elevations or in broadly separated patches. Furthermore, American pikas generally do not appear to move large distances, as many individuals may spend their entire lifespan within a half-mile radius. Pikas do not inhabit burrows which could mitigate extreme temperatures and are highly active aboveground during the hottest months of the year. In the warmer months, pikas must cure vegetation for their overwinter survival as pikas are active year-round and food is scarce in winter in the alpine environment. Earlier maturation of vegetation associated with global warming may mean increased stress for pikas, and hotter temperatures during high activity periods can create direct thermal stress on the animals. Pikas are densely furred, and thus cannot dissipate heat easily.

We will always have zoos and pretty still photos!   Oh, and videos, too:


14 Responses to So long Pika, we hardly knew ya

  1. fj2 says:

    Curious, that the President is not addressing the rapid heat-caused acceleration of extinctions such as that of the Pika and “The Future of Life” per EO Wilson and his ongoing interventions.

  2. Lewis says:

    Seems a base act of cowardice on the part of the Interior Department. I suspect fearful of being held up as saving ‘rats’ (they look like rats or mice to my untrained eye so it seems likely they’ll be ‘rats’ to those with even less tolerance for ‘cute’ than I) over jobs and various other unwarranted ridicule they copped out.

    So if the pikas go what other species do they take with them or other animal or plant grows without control?

    Or did the ID chicken out because it is a ‘no harm-no foul’ thing (unless you’re a pika.)

    But what with witch hunts, legislators passing resolutions doubting climate change and denying evolution, and attorney generals bringing suit against the EPA saying they don’t have the authority to protect the environment this is just par for the course.

  3. A Siegel says:

    “Nameless bureaucrats …” That sort of attack, imo, has made people scared to fight hard to uphold the law and respect the science.

    Now, what protection could we give them? Seems to be massive carbon reduction won’t keep warming down enough to save the Pika. Efforts to move them? What?

  4. dhogaza says:

    We used to commonly see Pika (rhymes with “pie” if you’re unsure how to pronounce it) in scree below cliffs in the Columbia Gorge. Well, hear them, typically. Their high-pitched warning whistle used to be a common sound, known to all hikers here. I haven’t heard one in the gorge in a long time. The Oregonian wrote about their disappearance at lower elevations in the gorge and in the Cascades as far back as 2003.

    As the West warms, scientists say some pikas have tried to move upslope to find cooler refuges but have run out of room.

    Volcanoes are pointy at the top :)

  5. Wit's End says:

    Species collapse will soon be more the rule than the exception, if it isn’t already:

    And speaking of dying of the heat, 50C = 122F!

  6. Dean says:

    The Endangered Species Act wouldn’t help in these kinds of cases because its toolbox is pre-warming. It can be used to prevent resource extraction and other kinds of human intervention that damage habitat. But it isn’t that kind of intervention that is destroying their habitat; their only recourse is to go up as high as they can in the mountains.

    The last pika will be on top of some peak somewhere – maybe chased by a marmot – squeaking away as a high altitude heat-wave does them in.

    I got a fantastic close and long view of a pika on a backpacking trip last year in the Washington Cascades. See

  7. Richard Brenne says:

    The term “canary in the coal mine” is popular because of alliteration, but “rat in the coal mine” would be far more accurate as they were observed much more often. Coal miners in China, the U.K. and U.S. would feed and thus befriend rats in coal mines, then notice if the rats all scurried off in the direction of safety.

    And if there’s anything to karma and reincarnation, prior to repentance and redemption I’m sure coal mine rats would still vote Republican.

  8. dhogaza says:

    The Endangered Species Act wouldn’t help in these kinds of cases because its toolbox is pre-warming. It can be used to prevent resource extraction and other kinds of human intervention that damage habitat. But it isn’t that kind of intervention that is destroying their habitat; their only recourse is to go up as high as they can in the mountains.

    What it can do, though, is lead to very strict controls or outright bans on resource extraction, development, etc at those higher elevation habitats. As long as warming doesn’t get too severe, then, the species would escape extinction.

  9. john atcheson says:

    Probably that “dominion” thing — man was given “dominion” over the beasts. Funny how our bearded old man in the sky is so benevolent to us (when he’s not smitin’) but so indifferent to the rest of his creation.

    Almost enough to make you think we made him up, just so we can do whatever we damn well please.

    Like denying reality.

  10. Leif says:

    Another problem for the Pika to overcome. The Pika are dependent on grasses and flowers that may have already reached their maximum altitude because of soil conditions. That food supply my not be able to migrate as fast as the pika will be compelled to. The plants currently found at higher elevations already may not have the nutrient value or balance. And of course, as pointed out, mountains are pointy and devoid of good dirt. Down is death as surely as you or I trying to walk to the neighboring island in over six feet of water.

  11. Stuart says:

    Damn. This will be the fate of so many dwellers in the sky islands of Arizona as well. I remember seeing pikas when hiking in the Wind River mountains and hearing their sharp little “eeee” call.

    Another casualty of the human war on nature.

  12. johna says:

    #9 john atcheson. I’m looking forward to your posts on books.

    Re: Dominion
    I don’t read a lot into outlier Bible passages taken without context, although that is a famous verse. In the Near East, ancient kings in far away cities often erected stelae with their image on the borders. Those marked the territory and intimidated would-be invaders. Kings were both good and bad, some looked after their subject’s welfare and others did not. Gerhard Van Rad noted that God made man in his image and put him on earth, perhaps as a similar sovereign emblem. Man was given a job in the Garden and told to tend and care for the living things there. Humans were commanded to use those gifts and not to abuse them.

    And Scripture tells who remains in charge – e.g.
    ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ &

    ‘For every beast of the forest is Mine,
    And the cattle on a thousand hills.
    I know all the birds of the mountains,
    And the wild beasts of the field are Mine.’

    So is that ‘fullness’ or alternately, ‘God’s abundance,’ an older way to convey ‘biodiversity?’
    If so, it would be absurd for religious people to think there are no ethics behind preserving other creatures. Other beings possess worth beyond man’s use and enjoyment.

    The OT prophets repeatedly told Israel to honor the Sabbath and rest from work, to rest servants and animals, even the land. In the seventh year, fields were to be left fallow. The land didn’t belong to the Israelites but was a gift from God. Fields were not to be harvested near the edges, so wild animals and the poor could survive. Fallen grapes and kernels were to be left where they dropped. The soil was not to be plowed too deeply. These were ways to sustainably farm marginal land. The conservation scheme had additional features of social justice that benefited the people. Land which owners had been forced to rent or to sell always reverted back to the original family in the year of Jubilee.

    But ‘wise land use’ rules fell out of fashion. Israel changed to a King system featuring unsustainable economics. David and his descendants wanted armies and great works, requiring taxes. Being close to trade routes made selling excess production easy and irresistibly tempting. Thoughtless trade also damaged the land of their neighbors. The Cedars of Lebanon are almost gone although a few are being replanted. (Interestingly the last stand was protected by a monastery for ~1,000 years.) The commands to be good stewards were forgotten and the land wore down. As the land suffered, people suffered too. Eventually, the land took a long recovery when the tenants made an unplanned side trip to Babylon.

    I welcome interest in stories to inform the public; they shortcut understanding. That is appreciated by all religions. Stories also change the mental circuits of the brain. But don’t overlook the potential of stories already known to a billion people. Many people are interested in stories that will help people change, for the right reasons.

    Finally, those pikas are incredibly, poster-child cute. Adults may have unlearned that other creatures have value but children know it. And they wouldn’t understand why adults are unconcerned about killing the real Pikachu. Write someone and give them an earful.

  13. Richard Brenne says:

    John Atcheson (#9) –

    Many misunderstand science but that doesn’t mean that there is no science.

    Similarly, many misunderstand spirituality but that doesn’t mean that there is no spirituality.

    I think the goal is to understand all important science the best one can, while also realizing that all that is quantifiable might not be all there is to existence.

    I see no conflict between the highest levels of scientific and spiritual understanding.

    Just because we made up the man with the beard in the sky doesn’t mean that there isn’t a far deeper reality than that which me made up and also far deeper than that which we know.

    The teachings and lives of Buddha, St. Francis and Jesus seem infused with a love of nature and all creation. They came to teach the only species who could appear to remove themselves from the rest of nature.

    Just as Michael Mann’s “hide the decline” would be less offensive if it were understood to mean “reconcile” tree ring with temperature data, if “dominion” were understood to mean “live in harmony with” then a higher meaning could be understood.

    It appears that we thought we were here to grow everything materially, when I think we’re here to grow spiritually, not deifying a material old man with a beard, but understanding the true nature of all nature.

    It appears to me that when people or nature are about competition (including predation, disease, death, suffering) that is not as profoundly spiritual as when there is cooperation (including, kindness, caring and one species benefitting another).

    Maybe the deepest understanding is in spirituality, not materialism, because excluding the possibility of spirituality would sentence one’s universe to be comprised entirely of competition and that which is ruthless and random.

  14. Jonathan says:

    How do you know that Pika’s are going to be gone, did you go talk to them?? This is just something else for these Global Warming doomsayers to blame on!!

    Here’s an idea, when the snow melts, like it’s supposed too, lets blame it on global warming!!