SAN FRANCISCO -- Environmental groups have sued a California agency for failing to protect an alpine mammal that may be an early casualty of climate change.
Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity filed briefs in state court yesterday against the California Fish and Game Commission for a series of decisions that have left five species of the American pika unprotected by the state's Endangered Species Act.
Because the pika thrives at high elevations throughout the western United States, conservationists say the animal is extra sensitive to warming temperatures. The pika's habitat, they say, is shrinking, leaving it vulnerable to overheating as snows melt sooner and reduce a natural layer of insulation.
The groups have been pushing hard for both federal and state ESA listings for the pika since 2007. But while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to review the animal's status, with a decision due within the year, California officials have resisted.
Greg Loarie, an attorney at Earthjustice, said the lawsuit targets a decision handed down by the Fish and Game Commission in June that, in his view, refused to consider new scientific data showing diminished habitat for the pika. A state court had ordered the commission to review the new data, he said.
"Our lawsuit challenges the commission's conclusion that there is insufficient evidence that listing pikas may be unwarranted," Loarie wrote in an e-mail.
A spokeswoman at the California Department of Fish and Game said the commission is aware of the challenge and is reviewing the lawsuit.
The fight over the pika is considered by many to be a test case for climate change litigation under endangered species laws at both state and federal levels. Experts say the pika and other high-elevation species, including the alpine chipmunk, are in danger in Yosemite and Great Basin national parks, among other areas.
Herbert Frost, associate director of natural resource stewardship and science for the National Park Service, at a field hearing in Colorado last month indicated that the pika, the alpine chipmunk and other animals in national parks are in trouble as warming leads to melting glaciers and reduced snowpack (Land Letter, Aug. 27).
To Loarie, the evidence points strongly in the direction of an Endangered Species Act listing. He noted that FWS officials have already acknowledged the need for added protections for the pika under the federal ESA, quoting a preliminary finding released in May that said "the range of the American pika and the habitat within the range are likely to decrease as surface temperatures increase."
"The court gave the commission a second chance to do the right thing and protect this imperiled species, but the commission persists in disregarding both science and the law," Loarie said, in reference to a May court ruling remanding the listing review back to the Fish and Game Commission.
State officials refused further comment, citing a need to review the legal briefs first.