Recent drought and extreme heat in the U.S. has had a well-documented impact on people living in the West and Midwest. But another denizen of the American West is facing a dire threat.
The American Pika is a small, mountain-dwelling mammal sometimes referred to as the “mountain bunny of the Rockies.” And new evidence shows that Pikas are disappearing from the Great Basin in Nevada, Utah and California at an alarming rate.
The Pika is particularly sensitive to small changes in temperature, making it an interesting animal to study as researchers look at the impact of a warming planet.
A recent study of Pikas in the Great Basin found that the animals are fleeing their habitats for higher, cooler elevations at a rate 11 times faster than before the year 2000. “The low-elevation range boundary for this species is now moving upslope at an average rate of about 145 m per decade.” In Yosemite National Park, that number is closer to 150 meters:
“Pikas are shifting their range to higher elevations in response to increased warming, and thus, their suitable habitat is being reduced. In models designed to predict these patterns of loss, the importance of climatic factors has risen dramatically over the past decade.”
Extreme heat and drought has been particularly bad for the Pika. Moreover, localized extinctions of Pika populations in the Great Basin have “increased at five times the 20th century average in the last 10 years.”
In 2010, the Obama Administration opted not to include the Pika on the Endangered Species list because “while some pika populations in the West are declining, others are not.” The decision to not protect the Pika outraged some scientists interested in the plight of the furry, flower-eating relative of the rabbit:
“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.”
Despite its status as a “Species of Least Concern,” the American Pika is clearly under threat. As droughts and heat waves like the ones we’ve seen recently become more frequent and intense, the American Pika will find it harder and harder to survive.
Sadly, the Pika won’t be alone in that regard. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that “as global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C [relative to 1980 to 1999], model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe.” If we don’t reduce emissions soon, we are headed to far higher warming.
— Max Frankel
- Study finds “mass biodiversity collapse” at 900 ppm, and possibly a “threshold response … to relatively minor increases in CO2 concentration and/or global temperature.”
- Royal Society special issue: “There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record.”
- Nature Climate Change (9/11): “The proportion of actual biodiversity loss should quite clearly be revised upwards: by 2080, more than 80% of genetic diversity within species may disappear in certain groups of organisms“