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Unless you are an avid mountain hiker, you have probably never seen a pika. This small, furry relative of the rabbit relative lives in high, rocky, alpine areas. They have become a symbol of climate change impacts for some environmental groups.
The American pikas thrive in cool, rocky fields generally above the tree line in mountainous areas (usually between 8,000 – 13,000 ft). They eat plants and do not hibernate. Rather, they store hay to survive the long mountain winters. And aside from the occasional hiker, they rarely encounter humans.
“Because of where they live, they are relatively unaffected by other human activities, but if climate change forces their preferred habitat upslope, populations could be left isolated, on ‘sky islands’ with nowhere to go.” says Andrea Ray, a physical scientist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.
At the request of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Ray and NOAA partners from the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences recently conducted a climate assessment for the pika — the first-ever for a non-marine mammal — to help the FWS decision on whether it should be listed as a threatened or endangered species.
An endangered species designation can have broad environmental and economic impacts. They can boost dwindling animal populations and restrict hunting, logging and other human activities in the endangered species’ habitat.
Earlier research, published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 2003, showed a decline in pika populations. It also raised concern that rising temperatures were threatening pikas with extinction.
“We were approached by Fish and Wildlife to conduct a rapid review of the area’s climate that they could use in reviewing the pika’s status,” says Ray. “We brought different threads of scientific study together to bear on the particular problem and completed the report in about six months.”
The NOAA team assessed climate data and projections of change in the western United States and discovered a distinct warming trend and consistent projections of warming into the future.
They found that by midcentury, the average summer temperatures will be about 5 degrees F warmer than in the recent past. That means that summer temperatures will equal or exceed the warmest summers of the recent past. Observations from Nevada and Oregon, for example, show statistically significant warming of 2-4 degrees F in summers over the past 30 years.
The assessment brought together findings from the latest research, observations from a number of sources, studies of past climate, and global models to project future climate. NOAA’s rapid climate review for the pika was possible because the agency has monitored climate data in many parts of the world for many decades, and has ongoing research on climate at elevation, and applications of climate models.
Ultimately, the Fish and Wildlife Service ruled in February 2010 that pikas did not need protection under the Endangered Species Act. But this process offers an excellent example of how NOAA’s scientific research informed the decision makers by ensuring that they had best available science was available.
Posted April, 2010