SALT LAKE CITY -- Climate change might be hurting some populations of the American pika, a relative of the rabbit, but not enough to warrant endangered species protection for the tiny mountain-dwelling animal, according to a decision released Thursday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted a copy of its decision on a federal Web site stating that while some pika populations in the West are declining, others are not, so it would not extend Endangered Species Act protections.
If they had been allowed, the pika would have been the first animal in the continental United States listed because of the effects of global warming.
Although potentially vulnerable to climate change in some parts of its range, pikas will have enough high-elevation habitat to survive, the agency said.
"We acknowledge there is going to be some decline at some locations, but the pika is widespread enough, across a range of habitat, that it appears it would not threaten the long-term survival and existence of the species," Larry Crist, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Utah, said Thursday afternoon.
Greg Loarie, an Earthjustice attorney who worked on lawsuits pressing for protections for the pika, said science clearly points toward dramatic reductions in pika populations in the coming decades because of warming temperatures.
"To conclude this species is not threatened by climate change strikes me as an impossible gamble," Loarie said.
The pika lives mostly in high, rocky mountain slopes in 10 Western states including Wyoming.
The animals are well-suited for alpine conditions, but as temperatures warm they're forced to move up-slope. In some places, scientists said the pika has run out of room to run and populations have disappeared. Even brief exposure to temperatures of 78 degrees or warmer can cause death.
A study in 2003 found six of 25 previously known pika populations in the Great Basin -- which stretches across Nevada and into surrounding states -- had disappeared, primarily because of the effects of warming temperatures. Since then, pikas have likely disappeared from more places in the basin, scientists said.
"This is a species which is a poster child of species that are targeted by global warming," said Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University.
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the government in 2007 to protect the pika.
Since then, the case has been closely watched by legal experts, not only for its near-term effects on the pika but also for long-term implications for other species.
"Climate change is changing everything. It's changing the law, it's pushing the courts to confront a problem that the legislative branch has yet to address," said Pat Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School who specializes in endangered species and climate change.
"But right now, in the absence of any meaningful controls on these sources of carbon dioxide, the Endangered Species Act is a potential tool."
The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a threatened species in 2008 because of the threats of global warming. Officials quickly completed regulations, though, to ensure the listing couldn't be used to block projects that contribute to global warming. The Obama administration's Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, has refused to rescind that rule, which is being challenged in court.
The pika also lives in parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.