Central Valley

State wildlife officials oppose protection for Sierra critter

California wildlife officials have proposed denying endangered species status for the American pika, a rabbit-like resident of high Sierra peaks that is losing its habitat to climate change.

The recommendation came in a staff report presented to the state Fish and Game Commission on Thursday. The commission is expected to discuss the report next month. The pika is the first animal petitioned for listing under the state Endangered Species Act because of effects from climate change.

The report cited a lack of data on the pika's decline in California as the reason for denying the listing request, which was submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity. The group also petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the pika under the federal Endangered Species Act, which is pending.

Biologists have documented that the pika population is shrinking as mountains warm, because the fist-sized animal is being forced into ever-smaller "islands" of habitat higher in the mountains. But most of this evidence has been gathered in the Great Basin mountains of Nevada and Utah, and several experts contacted by The Bee said there is not yet sufficient evidence of population declines in California.

But they said there is evidence of habitat shrinkage in California. And they urged the state to study the problem, as the pika is likely the first of many wildlife species harmed by climate change.

"There are enough data to at least warrant a precautionary way of looking at pika, and maybe fund studies, but not dismiss it out of hand," said Andrew Smith, a professor of conservation biology at Arizona State University, who has studied pika colonies in the Eastern Sierra for more than 30 years. "They should look at it seriously."