Chris Ray looks outdoorsy and rugged even as she sits in a bustling Boulder coffee shop, peering into the depths of a laptop. She’s busy. Very busy. More busy than she thought she’d be when she set out, years ago, to study a little mountain creature known as the pika. She also wasn’t expecting the political skirmishes, the spotlight and the requests from other researchers and biologists.
It’s all because the pika—which she calls “pretty much the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. Looks like a potato with Mickey Mouse ears. Golden potato, not a russet”—is in trouble. According to Ray, certain pika populations are seeing serious declines, and the evidence is pointing to one culprit: “The pattern is very clear to me,” Ray said. “Climate change is the only smoking gun we have.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided—after being sued by two groups looking to get the pika listed as endangered—to take a look at the pika’s status and will determine if the adorable, wildflower-gathering animal is worthy of being protected under the Endangered Species Act. It would become the first mammal in the lower 48 states to be listed as endangered because of climate change. At its most basic, the ESA works to save species from extinction. And if the pika is listed as endangered because of climate change, it means A) federal agencies will be tasked with influencing global greenhouse gas emissions or B) the ESA risks looking like it’s lost its teeth through inaction.
So it seems the pika might end up being the poster child for the micro-level impacts of macro-level contributions to climate change.
On the FWS: As a leading researcher in her field—studying the pikas’ habitat and survival—Ray has turned over her research to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which will likely announce its findings early next year. “I think it might be hard for them to walk away from some of the models that show (the pika) disappearing from certain areas,” she said. “It’s really a correlation. Then again, they might be able to shoot big holes in those models.”
On the pika: “They are really fun to watch. They are little packets of energy, and they have this call that is a lot bigger than one would think could come from such a small animal. There is something of a little-dog syndrome going on. They are really vigorous and extremely territorial, like little people in a neighborhood bickering over fence disputes.”
There is no great evidence that the pika population in the Rockies is declining—yet. Currently, pika populations in certain elevations in the Great Basin of the Sierra Nevada mountain range are seeing major declines.
On the future: Ray is now working to find the mechanism through which climate change is affecting pikas. She lists off several options: increased summer temperatures could be making it too hot for the animals; decreased snow pack, which helps insulate their habitat, could be leaving them exposed to frigid temperatures in winter; or slightly lower temperatures could allow disease to survive at certain elevations. “Tiny changes in climate can have huge effects,” she says.