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Is Climate Change Killing Pikas?

Posted by Andrew Engelson at May 11, 2009 03:30 PM |
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If you've hiked in alpine and subalpine country in the Cascades, you've probably encountered a pika.

They're one of the cutest animal of the high Cascades--about midway in size between a mouse and a rabbit. They love to nest in boulder fields high in the mountains. Even if you've never seen one, chances are as you've crossed a rocky talus field, you've heard their distinctive beeping call...a high-pitched "beeejurr."

According to news last week, it turns out the cute little pika may become the poster animal for the impact of climate change. An AP story last week reported that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will launch an in-depth review of the status of the pika and report back by February 2010. Wildlife biologists and environmentalists contend that increasing temperatures have imperiled this dweller of the high country. Pikas are just one of a number mountain plants and wildlife affected by a global rise in temperatures. The article reports that pikas can die if exposed to temperatures over 78 degrees--even for a short period of time.

The case could have far-reaching implications for the way the Endangered Species Act is applied to climate change. It would be one of the first designations that would cite climate change as the primary reason for a species' decline--the polar bear was also considered for designation, but in a disappointing announcement today, the Obama administration said it will not  nor push for limits on greenhouse gases because of polar bear declines. The pika could end up be a similar test case on how the Endangered Species Act is applied to greenhouse gases.

Wildlife and plants of Washington's high country are particularly susceptible to warming temperatures--even a few degrees can make a big difference. There's evidence that plants such as lichens in the Cascades have been detrimentally effected by pollution and climate change. Scientists are finding that climate change may effect populations of Anica checkerspot butterflies and soil fungi in North Cascades National Park. And shrinking glaciers in the North Cascades have contributed to lower water flows and are having impacts on everything from wildflowers to salmon runs.

The threatened pika is another reason that hikers are in a unique position in this debate--as observers of climate change's direct impacts on ecosystems. It reminds us too that hikers have a duty to speak up for these creatures and to insist that we collectively make changes in the way we use energy in our lives. That includes reducing our driving, taking transit, carpooling, living in smaller homes and making our homes more energy efficient. To find out how you can measure and reduce your carbon footprint, visit Bonnevile Environment Foundation's carbon calculator.