Enlisting Endangered Species As a Tool to Combat Warming

Environmentalists in the U.S. are increasingly trying to use the Endangered Species Act to ease the impact of global warming on numerous animals and plants, including the American pika. The goal is not only to protect the habitat of at-risk species but also to force reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

While a high-profile battle raged over listing the polar bear as a threatened species due to melting Arctic sea ice, U.S. environmentalists were quietly building a case to protect a critter closer to home, one whose existence also seems gravely threatened by a warming world.

A pocket-sized member of the rabbit family with a distinctive squeak and large ears that frame dark eyes and a button nose, the American pika lives on rocky slopes high in alpine mountain ranges from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Sporting a thick gray-brown coat, the pika does not hibernate and so maintains a high internal temperature to survive frigid winters. Because it can’t turn off its heater, the animal can die in the summer if its body temperature increases by as little as 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 F).

American pika
Photo by Donald M. Jones/Minden Pictures
As temperatures have risen, populations of the American pika have moved from lower elevations to cooler climes upslope.

As temperatures have risen across the American West, scientists who study the pika have discovered that it is disappearing from lower elevations. In the Sierra Nevada, for instance, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the pika had moved upslope 500 feet to cooler climes over the past 90 years. Another study determined that nine of 25 pika populations in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah have vanished over the past century, with surviving pikas migrating up 900 feet. Eventually, the tiny mammal will reach the mountaintop and the end of the line, with nowhere left to go if temperatures continue to climb, according to numerous biologists.

The pika has become an indicator species in more ways than one. It is in the vanguard of a growing number of animals and plants that U.S. environmental groups have petitioned to protect as the Endangered Species Act becomes the latest battleground over global warming.

The effort to put a furry face on the abstract phenomenon of climate change is bringing to a head a simmering issue: As scientific evidence accumulates about global warming’s impact on wildlife, how effective can the Endangered Species Act be in cushioning the blow of climate change on various species? But beyond this issue, an even thornier question looms: Can conservation groups use the act to force the U.S. government to use the legislation’s powerful provisions to mandate greenhouse gas reductions to protect wildlife and their habitat?

“You don’t solve global warming with a single solution, but with all the tools you have,” says Kassie Siegel, senior counsel and director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group that has filed listing petitions on behalf of the polar bear, pika, and other species. “The Endangered Species Act is designed to address cumulative problems like DDT or greenhouse gas emissions that build up in the atmosphere.”

Environmentalists are focusing on two habitats most at risk from warming — sea ice and mountain ranges.

Environmentalists are focusing on fauna and flora clustered in two habitats most at risk from global warming — sea ice and mountain ranges. In December 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition to list the whitebark pine, a high-altitude tree being decimated by the mountain pine beetle, which flourishes in warmer temperatures. Also up for listing is the mist forestfly, an insect that survives in alpine springs in Montana and Alberta, Canada, and whose existence is threatened by shrinking glaciers.

In the coming months, the federal government also faces deadlines to make endangered species listing decisions on a host of sea ice-dependent species, including the Pacific walrus and ringed and bearded seals.

“The rapid melt of Arctic sea ice as a result of global warming threatens all Arctic marine mammals with extinction,” wrote representatives of the Center for Biological Diversity in a May 28 petition to list three seal species. “Global warming will impact ringed, bearded, and spotted seals directly by degrading and eliminating critical sea-ice habitat, which will have devastating consequences by reducing adult reproductive success and the survival of pups.”

So far the Obama administration has been reluctant to list species on the basis of climate change, even in cases where the evidence seems overwhelming. The Bush administration, faced with irrefutable evidence of the threat to polar bears from melting Arctic sea ice, did list the bear as threatened — but not endangered — in 2008.

Responding to numerous studies on the pika, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made an initial finding last year that listing “may be warranted because of the present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of its habitat or range as a result of effects related to global climate change.”

But when the wildlife service issued its final ruling in February after a full review, it reversed course and denied the listing, finding that the pika could survive rising temperatures as well as the loss of snow pack, which the animals depend on for shelter. “The American pika has demonstrated flexibility in its behavior and physiology that can allow it to adapt to increasing temperature,” the wildlife service stated, citing government research that indicated the pika occupied a wider range of habitat than previously thought.

Environmentalists and some scientists criticized the decision as scientifically unjustified and are considering a legal challenge.

‘The science is very clear that pika populations are collapsing,’ Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice.

“The science is very clear that pika populations are collapsing at least in the Great Basin of the western United States and even in strongholds like the Sierra Nevada in California,” says Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that represents the Center for Biological Diversity in its efforts to protect the pika. “My feeling is that no politician wants to deal with this thing at all as it’s such a hot-button issue. We’re seeing agencies bending over backwards to avoid listing because of climate change.”

Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species at the Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledges the pika decision “was an outcome that was at odds with many people’s initial impressions, including some within the service, and it certainly did go against the grain of what some people thought was a done deal.”

“But it was a thorough and well-founded analysis,” he says, “and based on modeling of temperature changes on the pika we concluded we’re not likely to make this critter threatened or endangered within the foreseeable future.”

The decision gives the government a momentarily reprieve from making the tough choices on how to save what J.B. Ruhl, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, has called a “species essentially doomed by climate change.”

“The pika is toast,” Ruhl wrote in a 2008 Boston University Law Review article, arguing that the government should do what it can to halt the decline of “doomed species” like the pika and polar bear but should mainly focus resources on plants and animals that have better odds of making a transition to a warmer world.

The Obama administration has granted protection to two Caribbean corals, in part based on rising ocean temperatures, but it has denied listing to the ice-dependent ribbon seal and also has rejected protection for the spotted seal.

“Despite the recent dramatic reductions in Arctic Ocean ice extent during summer, the sea ice in the northern Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk is expected to continue forming annually in winter for the foreseeable future,” concluded scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in their finding that the ribbon seal is not endangered by climate change. Likewise, NOAA found that protection of the Bering and Okhotsk populations of the spotted seal was unwarranted.

The regulations governing the Endangered Species Act are complicated, but at heart the law requires the government to determine if a plant or animal’s existence is threatened or endangered and then to protect the species and its habitat and formulate a plan for its recovery. With limited exceptions, no one may harm a listed species or modify its habitat. All federal agencies must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or NOAA before approving any actions that might imperil a protected plant or animal. The law also allows citizens to petition the government to list a species and sue it if the law is not being enforced.

In the 1980s and 1990s, environmental groups successfully sued the government to curtail logging of old-growth forests to protect the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and other species. Ongoing fights over salmon in California have resulted in court orders to halt the pumping of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Central Valley farmers.

Stopping the logging of an ancient redwood forest can save birds that nest in treetops and shutting down a water pump can prevent thousands of fish from being mutilated by machinery. But how to keep Arctic ice from melting, or temperatures from rising on Sierra Nevada mountaintops, when greenhouse gas emissions from millions of sources worldwide contribute to a species’ decline?

It’s impossible to connect emissions from a particular facility to a specific animal or plant.

The Bush administration’s answer was you don’t. While it cited climate change as a reason for listing the polar bear as a threatened species, the administration imposed a rule that effectively barred the wildlife service from regulating greenhouse gas emissions when fulfilling its obligation to save the animal from extinction. The Obama administration has let that rule stand for the polar bear, much to the dismay of some environmentalists.

Environmental attorneys note that a strict interpretation of the Endangered Species Act would require federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, to consult with the Fish & Wildlife Service before approving, say, a license for a coal-fired power plant in Texas that contributes to warming the pika’s Sierra Nevada habitat in California.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to follow the law and if an action is going to adversely affect a species, they need to consult,” says Rebecca Riley, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has petitioned the government to list the whitebark pine. “They would have to look at that power plant and what its effect on the species would be.”

Recently, the wildlife service announced that the listing of the whitebark pine may be warranted due, in part, to climate change. The wildlife service will now conduct a 12-month review of the scientific evidence. The decision came as a new study found that 82 percent of whitebark pine forests are dead or dying in the greater Yellowstone region in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

But Frazer says that such consultations about the impact of a particular power plant on a potentially threatened species are simply not feasible, as it’s currently scientifically impossible to connect the emissions of any particular facility to a specific impact on an animal or plant and its habitat. “The effect on the species has to be something we can meaningfully measure and detect,” he says. “Science is evolving rapidly and we may get that connection. If that occurs, we’re going to be faced with an immense challenge. We’d be dealing with an action area that is almost worldwide. It almost boggles the mind.”

Loarie, the Earthjustice attorney, argues that the issue isn’t as black and white as whether the Fish and Wildlife Service should regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

“I don’t think anyone believes that listing the pika under the Endangered Species Act will cause the federal government to stop all activities that emit greenhouse gases,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that a coal-fired power plant won’t necessarily be built. But when they build it, they must consider impacts on species and take reasonable measures to mitigate the impact, such as buying carbon credits or installing pollution control equipment.”

The most important thing, he says, is to get plants and animals at risk of climate-change extinction listed so the government can begin to take action to ameliorate those effects. Those steps include reducing impacts not related to climate change, identifying where animals may need to migrate as the world warms, and establishing wildlife corridors and other protected areas.

Frazer says the wildlife service is beginning to look beyond a species’ critical habitat when developing strategies to recover populations of imperiled plants and animals. “Because climate change does affect the physical environment over very large areas, it has to be addressed in a landscape-level approach,” he says.

Notes Earthjustice’s Loarie: “There are certain areas where the pika is likely to go extinct. But the bottom line is that anything we can do to protect the pika now will pay a dividend for other species.”

Like humans. “Clearly the pika is in trouble and we need to do big things to save it,” says Siegel, of the Center for Biological Diversity. “But we need to do those things to save ourselves.”