In a story that is being closely followed by all the residents of Button Valley, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has agreed to assess whether the American Pika (Ochotona princeps) is eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The determination is part of a settlement reached in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity after years of trying to get the bunny listed. “Pika populations are in jeopardy, and we can’t afford to delay protections,” says Shaye Wolf, a biologist for the Center. These tiny mammals are particularly susceptible to climate change as they are driven ever higher in their mountain habitat by warming temperatures. Over a third of the populations of rock rabbits in Nevada and Oregon have gone extinct in the last century due to warming. Those that are left are now found an average of 900 feet further upslope. Pikas do not hibernate and due to reduced winter snowpack and warmer summertime temps, the critters cannot adapt fast enough to overcome the effects of climate change. They can only climb so high before there is no place left to go. Their heavy fur coat makes them particularly intolerant of higher temperatures and the same forces are having an effect on the grasses and flowers that the animals depend on for survival. Pikas must gather and store over 60 pounds of forage to see them through the high mountain winter but they can be severely stressed or die at temperatures as low as 80 degrees.
The Feds must determine by May whether the Button Valley High School mascot will be placed on the endangered list due to shrinking habitat. Listing could come by early 2010. The Pika would be the first mammal in the lower 48 states to receive protection under the act.