The US Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list pikas under the Endangered Species Act; the decision was issued yesterday. These small, furry critters are related to rabbits, live at high elevations, and, in general, seem sensitive to high temperatures and to decreases in snowpack. Populations of pikas at lower elevations in the Great Basin have gone extinct, apparently due to rising temperatures associated with global warming. If the pika had been listed, it would have been the first animal in the Lower 48 to receive protection because of the threat of climate change.
The listing decision cited the fact that although pikas might be lost at lower elevations, they are capable of moving uphill or adapting their behaviors, and said that regardless, pikas would probably survive at higher elevations until at least 2050. This brings me back to my earlier questions about how the ESA might need adaptation to meet both increased challenges to conservation, and an increased understanding of what makes a species and an ecosystem viable over the long term. We face increasingly long-range, systemic environmental problems that can’t be addressed through the basic tool-kit that worked for the past 40 years, and we now know enough about ecosystem structure to understand that we need to account for interdependence. 2050 is nothing in terms of ecological timeframes, and knocking pikas out at low elevations could have effects up the food chain and across the ecosystem. Is our only standard going to be whether or not this animal is still present on isolated sky islands 40 years from now? This seems short-sighted.
It also makes me wonder what the USFWS might say in response to the assertion that wolverines might be at risk due to climate change. If we lose our wolverine populations in Wyoming, Idaho, and Southern Montana, does that not matter to the decision makers as long as a population survives in Glacier National Park, for example? It’s not clear that climate change will be a factor in the listing decision for wolverines, and there is evidence of other threats, so maybe it’s not a relevant question. But I worry about the broader implications of a decision that says that it is acceptable to lose substantial nodes of a widespread population like pikas.