On Thursday, Yale Environment 360 published a story I wrote about a growing fight over using the U.S. Endangered Species Act to protect wildlife at risk of extinction from climate change:
While a high-profile battle raged over listing the polar bear as a threatened species due to melting Arctic sea ice, U.S. environmentalists were quietly building a case to protect a critter closer to home, one whose existence also seems gravely threatened by a warming world.
A pocket-sized member of the rabbit family with a distinctive squeak and large ears that frame dark eyes and a button nose, the American pika lives on rocky slopes high in alpine mountain ranges from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Sporting a thick gray-brown coat, the pika does not hibernate and so maintains a high internal temperature to survive frigid winters. Because it can’t turn off its heater, the animal can die in the summer if its body temperature increases by as little as 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 F).
As temperatures have risen across the American West, scientists who study the pika have discovered that it is disappearing from lower elevations. In the Sierra Nevada, for instance, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the pika had moved upslope 500 feet to cooler climes over the past 90 years. Another study determined that nine of 25 pika populations in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah have vanished over the past century, with surviving pikas migrating up 900 feet. Eventually, the tiny mammal will reach the mountaintop and the end of the line, with nowhere left to go if temperatures continue to climb, according to numerous biologists.
The pika has become an indicator species in more ways than one. It is in the vanguard of a growing number of animals and plants that U.S. environmental groups have petitioned to protect as the Endangered Species Act becomes the latest battleground over global warming.
The effort to put a furry face on the abstract phenomenon of climate change is bringing to a head a simmering issue: As scientific evidence accumulates about global warming’s impact on wildlife, how effective can the Endangered Species Act be in cushioning the blow of climate change on various species? But beyond this issue, an even thornier question looms: Can conservation groups use the act to force the U.S. government to use the legislation’s powerful provisions to mandate greenhouse gas reductions to protect wildlife and their habitat?
You can read the rest of the story here.