BILLINGS — U.S. officials on Tuesday rejected greater protections for six species including the rabbit-like American pika, which researchers warn is disappearing from areas of the West as climate change alters its mountain habitat.
The pika’s range is shrinking across southern Utah, northeastern California and in the Great Basin that covers most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Oregon, Idaho and California, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study released last month.
Ambient temperatures of 78 degrees Fahrenheit or higher can kill the mountain-dwelling mammals, wildlife officials say.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service said in documents released Tuesday that warmer temperatures don’t necessarily lead to population declines. That’s because pika can seek cooler refuge beneath rock fields during summer months.
The agency also said the most severe effects of climate change are being felt at elevations below 8,200 feet, which is near the lower limit of the pika’s range in the West.
That suggests pika habitat “has not experienced the more substantial changes” of reduced snowpack due to climate change, the agency said.
Last month’s USGS study was not available when a student from New York petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April to protect the animal under the Endangered Species Act, agency spokesman Brian Hires said. That means the findings weren’t considered.
“We always try to use the best available science for our decisions,” Hires said.
The government denied a prior request for pika protections in 2010, saying not all populations were declining.
The wildlife service is unlikely to pursue further action on pikas on its own, officials said, citing a heavy workload of other imperiled species.
President Barack Obama mentioned the plight of the pika this summer when he spoke at Yosemite National Park about the damage inflicted by climate change. He said the pika was being forced further upslope at Yosemite to escape the heat.
Wildlife officials also rejected petitions Tuesday to protect the Wyoming pocket gopher, two species of Alaskan birds known as eiders, a Caribbean iguana and a salamander found in Arkansas. Further details on those decisions were not immediately available.
Officials said petitions for four species merit further review.
Those are the Florida scrub lizard; the Joshua tree of Arizona, California, Utah and Nevada; an amphibian known as the lesser Virgin Islands skink; and the Lassics lupine, a flowering plant found at high elevations in the North Coast mountains of California.
For those species, the wildlife service invited scientists and others to submit information that could help the agency in its decision.