SALT LAKE CITY — Climate change might be wiping out some populations of the American pika, a relative of the rabbit, but not enough to warrant legal protection for the tiny mountain-dwelling animal, according to a decision released Thursday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted its decision on a Web site stating that while some pika populations in the West are declining, others are not, so it would not extend Endangered Species Act protections.
The pika would have been the first animal in the continental United States listed because of the effects of global warming.
Although potentially vulnerable to climate change in some parts of its range, pikas will have enough high-elevation habitat to prevent extinction, the agency said.
"We acknowledge there is going to be some decline at some locations, but the pika is widespread enough, across a range of habitat, that it appears it would not threaten the long-term survival and existence of the species," said Larry Crist, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Utah.
Greg Loarie, an Earthjustice attorney who worked on lawsuits pressing for protections for the pika, said science clearly points toward dramatic reductions in populations in the coming decades because of warming temperatures.
"To conclude this species is not threatened by climate change strikes me as an impossible gamble," Loarie said.
The pika lives mostly in high, rocky mountain slopes in 10 Western states.
The animals are well-suited for alpine conditions, but as temperatures warm they're forced to move up-slope. In some places, the pika has run out of room to run and populations have disappeared, scientists said. Even brief exposure to temperatures of 78 degrees or warmer can cause death.
A 2003 study found six of 25 previously known pika populations in the Great Basin – which stretches across Nevada and into surrounding states – had disappeared, primarily because of warming temperatures. Since then, pikas have likely disappeared from more places in the basin, scientists said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said that summertime temperatures in pika habitat are expected to increase about 5.4 degrees in the next century. Pikas living at lower elevations in some areas – including parts of the Great Basin and the Rocky Mountains – are "likely to experience increased declines in the foreseeable future," the agency said.
Those living higher up will have better survival rates, the agency said.
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the government in 2007 to protect the pika. Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the group, called Thursday's decision a political one that ignores both the law and the dire circumstances facing the pika.
"The Obama administration is taking a head-in-the-sand approach but the problem is not going to get better. It's only going to get worse," Wolf said. "We don't have any time to lose."
But Rob Rivett, president of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that supports property rights and limited government, praised a decision that shows "a little bit of balance and reasonableness coming out of the Fish and Wildlife Service."
He said it's good to see that a careful analysis shows there's plenty of habitat for the pika to survive without protections of the Endangered Species Act and the additional restrictions that would have accompanied a listing.
"We're always concerned about using the ESA as a surrogate for addressing global warming. That's not the purpose of the ESA," Rivett said.
The quest to protect the pika has been closely watched by legal experts, not only for its near-term effects on the pika but also for long-term implications for other species.
"Climate change is changing everything. It's changing the law, it's pushing the courts to confront a problem that the legislative branch has yet to address," said Pat Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School who specializes in endangered species and climate change.
"But right now, in the absence of any meaningful controls on these sources of carbon dioxide, the Endangered Species Act is a potential tool."
The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a threatened species in 2008 because of the threats of global warming. Officials quickly completed regulations, though, to ensure the listing couldn't be used to block projects that contribute to global warming. The Obama administration's Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, has refused to rescind that rule, which is being challenged in court.
The pika lives in parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.