An effort to make the pika the first animal in the continental United States to receive federal protection because of climate change was squashed by the Obama administration earlier this month.
"We're very disappointed by this decision," says Greg Loarie, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which represented the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in its fight to get the pika on the Endangered Species List.
The tiny mammal, a relative of the rabbit, lives in rocky areas at high elevations throughout western Montana and across the Rocky Mountains. Environmentalists argue pikas are especially vulnerable to climate change—they overheat quickly and die when exposed to high temperatures for an extended period of time. In fact, they maintain more than a third of pika populations in the Great Basin Mountains of Nevada and southern Oregon have already gone extinct. CBD says if greenhouse gas emissions are not drastically reduced, warming temperatures will continue pushing pikas toward extinction.
"Our view is the science overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that pika are threatened by climate change," Loarie says.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) says that although pikas are potentially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the animal is adaptable and has enough high-elevation habitat available to prevent it from becoming endangered.
"There is evidence out there that they can persist," says FWS ecologist John Isanhart.
If granted endangered status, the pika would have been the first animal in the continental United States to receive federal protection because of climate change. Such a designation would legally obligate the government to take steps to ensure the animal's survival. In turn, Loarie says federal pika protections could influence regulation of major greenhouse gas emitters.
"We're under no illusion that the Endangered Species Act is the silver bullet," he says. "But we do think it's a useful tool in the box."
CBD will now evaluate whether to file a lawsuit challenging this month's decision.
"We're still hopeful that the pika will receive this protection," Loarie says. "It may, unfortunately, be too late."