Tag Archives: Endangered Species Act

Video: mountain species, climate change, and the escalator effect

Mountains are especially vulnerable to climate change, so scientists are keeping a close watch on species such as the American pika (Ochotona princeps). This small mammal, which resembles a hamster and is a relative of the rabbit, lives in alpine and subalpine terrain across Western North America.

Although relatively widespread and usually found in protected public lands, the American pika is considered an indicator species for climate change and may face a challenging future. These cute critters are super-sensitive to heat and can die in a matter of hours is exposed to temperatures of 78 degrees or above.

As the mercury continues to rise in the decades ahead, pikas and many other mountain species are expected to ascend in elevation in search of cooler conditions—what’s been dubbed the “escalator effect.” But mountains eventually top out at a summit or ridge, so plants and animals can only climb so high.

“The pika is toast,” is how environmental law expert J.B. Ruhl opened his 2008 Boston University Law Review article on the challenge of administering the Endangered Species Act in an era of climate change.

Although some scientists and conservation groups remain deeply troubled about the pika’s prospects, recent research on the species has suggested it may be more resilient than previously thought.

Because pikas are photogenic and mountains are at the heart of the American West, I thought they would be fitting subjects for our first EcoWest video, which is embedded below (you can also watch on our Vimeo and YouTube channels). This is a new format that we’d like to explore further, so I’d welcome any feedback from viewers.

Escalator effect: climate change and mountains from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Background on boulder bunnies

Pikas live near sea level in parts of Western Canada, but in the United States they’re found much higher up. In places such as Nevada and Southern California, they’re rarely observed below 8,200 feet. In North America, as one moves southward toward warmer climes, pikas live at progressively higher elevations.

Here in Colorado, pikas are a common sight on talus slopes around treeline (roughly 11,000 feet) and above. The five-ounce animals blend in well with the boulders and scree, so you’re likely to hear them chirping first. But they’re not hard to see in summer as they scurry to gather grass and flowers for “hay piles” that will sustain them through the brutal alpine winter.

“Charismatic and conspicuous” is how the National Park Service’s Pikas in Peril project describes the animals, which were called “little chief hares” in the 19th century and are nicknamed “boulder bunnies” today.

American pika in Colorado
American pika in Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Conservation status and climate change

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, which rates the status of species around the world, puts the American pika in its “least concern” category. But the IUCN also notes that “the most pervasive threat affecting the American pika appears to be contemporary climate change.”

The map below (from this presentation by Scott Loarie at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution) shows the probability of pikas going locally extinct in the American West in the 21st century. Areas in red, such as Northern California, Oregon, and the Great Basin, are where pikas face the greatest threats of extirpation. They’re expected to fare better in higher-elevation blue areas, in places like Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. (This map includes areas with suitable habitat but no pikas; for the outlines of the pika’s current range, see this image.)

Probability of pika extirpation in 21st century

Noted conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, who taught Loarie in graduate school, says that “if Scott’s map is correct, pikas will no longer be charming companions to weary, out-of-breath hikers like me in Nevada, Oregon, and most of California.”

Below is another set of projections from University of Idaho researchers. These maps show the pika’s suitable habitat under three climate change projections: B1 is an optimistic scenario for greenhouse gases, A2 is pessimistic about our ability to contain carbon emissions, and A1B lies in between. According to this study, higher emissions and warmer temperatures will shrink the pika’s range.
Current and projected suitable habitat for pikas

Current and projected suitable habitat for pikas

Steep declines in Great Basin

Besides increasing heat-related stress, global warming could, paradoxically, cause pikas to freeze to death. If warming temperatures thin the snowpack, the animals will have less insulation during the winter, when they retreat beneath the surface but don’t actually hibernate.

In a place like the Great Basin, where climate change is projected to boost summer temperatures and shrink the winter snowpack, pikas face a “perfect storm,” the IPCC says. A 2011 paper in Global Change Biology concluded that the extinction rate for pikas in the Great Basin had increased nearly five-fold over the past decade. Examining 25 sites with historical records of pikas in the 20th century, the researchers found that nearly half of the local extinctions had occurred since 1999. Pikas in the Great Basin have been moving upslope at an average rate of nearly 500 feet per decade since 1999, 11 times faster than before (see this ScienceDaily story for details).

American pika in Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
American pika in Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Resilient species?

While Great Basin pikas appear to be in deep trouble, other research in the American West has found that the species is adapting to the 21st century climate. A 2011 study of 69 historical pika sites in the Southern Rockies, some dating back more than a century, found the animals still present at 65 of the locations.

Since the 1940s, scientists have been observing pikas living in ore dumps near Bodie, California, at about 8,400 feet elevation. “There appears to be no evidence that heat stress in summer at Bodie causes mortality or population decline of pikas on these small habitat islands,” the IUCN said, although warmer temperatures may have inhibited pikas from colonizing unoccupied habitat.

Here’s how the Fish and Wildlife Service describes the situation:

Despite the trends of increasing American pika declines in the Great Basin due to increasing temperatures, there is ample evidence that the species can survive and thrive in some habitats with relatively hot surface temperatures. American pika populations thrive at a lower elevation site in the mountains near Bodie, California and in the hot climates of Craters of the Moon (Idaho) and Lava Beds National Monuments (California). Pika persist at these sites because they reduce activity during hot mid-day temperatures by retreating to significantly cooler conditions under the loose rock areas and perform daily activities during the cooler morning and evening periods. Despite altering their behavior in response to high temperatures, pikas can maintain high birth and low mortality rates.

Feds decline to list pika under ESA

That statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service came in response to a 2007 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list the American pika under the Endangered Species Act.

In February 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to protect the pika under the tough federal law. “Although the American pika could potentially be impacted by climate change, we believe the species as a whole will be able to survive despite higher temperatures in a majority of its range,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said. “We believe the pika will have enough high elevation habitat to ensure its long-term survival.”

Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service developed models to predict if increasing surface temperatures due to climate change would affect the pika (below the surface, in the crevices of a talus slope, temperatures can be as much as 43 degrees cooler).

“New peer-reviewed information and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the pika is able to survive despite higher temperatures and will have enough suitable high elevation habitat to ensure that it will not face extinction in the forseeable [sic] future,” the agency said. The Center for Biological Diversity called the ruling a “political decision that ignores science and the law.”

The history of the Endangered Species Act certainly has its share of political meddling (see my book Endangered for the full story). But in this case, listing the pika wasn’t a biological slam dunk, in part because the danger lies decades ahead. The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged the jeopardy, saying “climate change is a potential threat to the long-term survival of the American pika,” but it concluded that the threat wasn’t urgent enough to warrant regulatory action. About 93 percent of the pika’s habitat is already under federal control and 30 percent is designated as wilderness.

Other species moving uphill

Pikas are just one of many mountain species that are being forced to adapt to climate change by moving uphill.

In August, researchers reported in Ecology and Evolution that plants have been scaling a mountain range near Tucson, Arizona in response to climate change. By re-examining a transect in the Santa Catalina Mountains five decades after a 1963 survey, scientists found “large changes in the elevational ranges of common montane plants” and concluded that “the Southwest is already experiencing a rapid vegetation change.” (See this story from the University of Arizona for more details on the study.)

As shown in the figure below, a Southern Arizona mountain is a layer cake of life zones, ranging from the Sonoran Desert at the bottom to a spruce-fir forest at the top. Enough warming could push the top layers right off these mountains.

Life zones in a typical southern Arizona mountain

 

Mountains and climate change

Anyone who has climbed to the top of West’s tallest mountains knows that biological diversity tends to decline the higher up you go. Here in Colorado, the tundra above treeline is a harsh environment (it’s already snowing in September), so few species can survive. Yet many mountains are biological gems with large numbers of endemic species found nowhere else. “Although species richness decreases with elevation, mountain regions support many different ecosystems and have among the highest species richness globally,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Here’s how the U.S. Global Change Research Program summed up the situation:

Animal and plant species that live in the mountains are among those particularly sensitive to rapid climate change. They include animal species such as the grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, pika, mountain goat, and wolverine. Major changes have already been observed in the pika as previously reported populations have disappeared entirely as climate has warmed over recent decades. One reason mountain species are so vulnerable is that their suitable habitats are being compressed as climatic zones shift upward in elevation. Some species try to shift uphill with the changing climate, but may face constraints related to food, other species present, and so on. In addition, as species move up the mountains, those near the top simply run out of habitat.

In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity also petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to grant Endangered Species Act protections to four other mountaintop species: the ‘i‘iwi, a Hawaiian songbird; the white-tailed ptarmigan, a grouse-like bird that lives in the Rockies; Bicknell’s thrush, a songbird from the Northeast; and the San Bernardino flying squirrel of Southern California. All of these petitions are currently under review.

Winners and losers

On balance, scientists see global warming as a threat to fragile mountain ecosystems, but some montane species may actually benefit from climate change.

In 2010, scientists reported in Nature that yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) had increased in both size and number in response to warming conditions. Warmer weather means less time hibernating, more time fattening up, and therefore a higher survival rate for this type of ground squirrel. “Earlier emergence from hibernation and earlier weaning of young has led to a longer growing season and larger body masses before hibernation,” the scientists concluded. (See this companion story in Nature and segment on NPR for more on the marmot study.)

Marmot in Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado
Marmot in Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Climate change will create winners and losers, not only among high-country critters but also in human society and the global economy. A resurgent marmot population will have implications for other species in their habitat, while any declines among pikas will affect their own ecological niche. As challenging as it is to predict the future range and behavior of one species, the situation gets even more complicated once you factor in the many interconnections in the web of life.

Downloads

Download Slides: Escalator EffectDownload Slides: Escalator Effect (9.29 MB pptx)

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

Trends in endangered species listings

To list or not to list?

That’s the key question facing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when it comes to endangered species.  More than 1,300 plants and animals have been granted federal protection and these so-called listed species are embroiled in practically every Western environmental issue. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has real teeth and it’s often the biggest hammer in environmentalists’ toolbox.

In this set of slides, I show where federally protected species live and review the history of ESA listings.

Trends in endangered species listings from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Endangered species are found throughout the country, but they tend to be concentrated in a few hotspots. The graphic below, from NatureServe, depicts how many listed threatened and endangered species are found in each county. Hawaii, the Pacific Coast, the Southwest, Appalachia, and Florida stand out for their large number of listed species, but many U.S. counties, especially in the Midwest, have no threatened or endangered species.

Species map

The number of listed species might seem like a useful barometer for tracking the status of biodiversity, but it’s an imperfect metric at best. Species are supposed to be added to the list solely on the basis of science and biologists’ assessment of their imperilment, even if doing so would derail development or impose steep economic costs. In reality, several studies have found that politics frequently intrudes in the listing process. See, for example, my book Endangered: Biodiversity on the Brink, and a 1990 book by Richard Tobin (no relation),  The Expendable Future: U.S. Politics and the Protection of Biological Diversity.

In its first term, the Obama administration has listed more species per year than George W. Bush’s administration, but considerably fewer than during the Clinton administration. Looking at the rate of species listings says as much about the political appetite for such regulatory moves as it does about the status of the nation’s biodiversity.

The ESA gives citizens the ability to petition the federal government to add a new species to the list and some environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, frequently make these requests. Fish and Wildlife is obligated to evaluate these petitions and decide whether a species should be listed, but with limited resources the agency can only process so many petitions. ESA opponents in Congress and elsewhere have figured out that by limiting this listing budget, they can constrict the pipeline of new species gaining federal protection.

Candidates in regulatory purgatory

The result is a gaping loophole that allows the government to declare a species’ listing as biologically “warranted but precluded” by budget constraints. Fish and Wildlife is only supposed to use this exception if “expeditious progress is being made to add qualified species” to the endangered club. In reality, the exception has become an all-too-convenient way for the government to abdicate its responsibilities under the ESA. I liken it to creating a long, slow-moving line for species to get aboard our legislative Noah’s Ark.

At least 24 species have blinked out while in the listing pipeline and the backlog of candidate species was the subject of recent litigation.  The Obama administration has made some progress in reducing the number of candidates from about 250 at the start of his first term to 192 in November 2012. Candidate species, like listed species, are found throughout the country, but they’re concentrated in Western and Southern states.

The number of listed species is bound to keep rising because only 20 have been declared recovered and no longer in need of ESA protection. In 18 cases, the government decided the original listing was in error, often because of taxonomic changes or the discovery of new populations. A species protected by the ESA has been declared extinct only nine times over the past four decades, which is pretty impressive given that many plants and animals only receive ESA protection after they’ve been driven to the brink.

Downloads

Download Slides: Trends in Endangered Species ListingsDownload Slides: Trends in Endangered Species Listings (14.33 MB pptx)
Download Notes: Trends in Endangered Species ListingsDownload Notes: Trends in Endangered Species Listings (1.16 MB pdf)
Download Data: Trends in Endangered Species ListingsDownload Data: Trends in Endangered Species Listings (273.88 kB xlsx)

 

Data sources

Fish and Wildlife’s ESA site is the go-to source for information on endangered species. I’ve also found Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States to be an extremely helpful resource. The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe make some of the book’s figures available here.

If you’d like to explore some of this data further, I’ve built a state-by-state dashboard that shows the number of listed, candidate, and extinct species.

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, or follow us on Twitter.