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A BIG BATTLE OVER A TINY MAMMAL In the bitter war being waged over climate change in this country, two creatures have been drafted as poster children: the Polar Bear and the American Pika, today’s Endangered All-Star. The pika is a diminutive creature often compared to the chinchilla because of its size and its superbly warm fur coat which keeps this high-altitude mammal alive in the crevices of rocky slopes throughout the winter. A lagomorph, and thus a relative of the rabbit, the pika has become the focus of conservation groups determined to force state agencies and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to acknowledge the threat posed by global warming. While listing the species as of “Least Concern,” the IUCN Red List also notes that eight of 36 subspecies are “Vulnerable,” threatened by overgrazing and, yes, global warming. The Center for Biological Diversity has sued repeatedly to gain protection for the species under the California Endangered Species Act and the federal ESA, pointing out that more than a third of Oregon and Nevada’s Great Basin populations have already been extirpated. The Center also cites two studies finding that climate change would inevitably push the species to extinction. A 2010 BioScience article, “Silence of the Pikas, by Wendee Holtcamp, quoted specialists agreeing with that assessment: “There’s enough evidence to say that pikas are going to be among the first mammals to be adversely affected by climate change…The problem with global warming is that if [pikas] lose snowpack, which provides insulation in winter, they freeze to death, and if the ambient air temperature heats up too much in summer, then they fry. That’s the challenge… . They’re already at the top of the mountain. If you heat it up substantially, there’s no place for them to go.” But in February 2010, the USFWS declared that additional protection for the pika “is not warranted at this time.” In defense of the finding, the agency suggested that the pika may exhibit “physiological flexibility.” To put it in words that New York’s infamous Daily News might use: USFWS To Pikas: GET USED TO IT. Will they? Some scientists are doubtful. For a study of Great Basin pikas published in the Journal of Biogeography in 2005, Donald K. Grayson, of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, examined the prehistoric record. It revealed how ancient pikas were driven farther and farther uphill, as it were, until they ran out of room. Prehistoric extinctions, he found, were “driven by climate change” and its effects on vegetation, and today’s pikas “may be on the brink of extinction.”
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