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A small ball of fur is now getting rolled up into a big debate over climate change. It's the American pika, a relative of the rabbit that lives in the mountain west.

Researchers say warmer temperatures are putting it at risk for extinction and concern over the pika survival could prompt new restrictions on activities that create greenhouse gases.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

(Soundbite of wind blowing)

JEFF BRADY: Pikas live in rocky areas high up in the mountains. They can be difficult to spot, but once you do, oh.

Ms. CHRIS RAY (Researcher, University of Colorado): He's got big round ears like Mickey Mouse, and no tail. So it looks like a little potato with mouse ears.

BRADY: That's Chris Ray from the University of Colorado. She's been studying pikas for a couple of decades now. At work in the mountains, she rarely looks you in the eye because she's always scanning the rocks for pikas. These cousins to rabbits are viciously territorial and protect their space with a cry that's about as ferocious as a 6-inch potato with ears can manage.

(Soundbite of a pika)

BRADY: Pikas hate to move. So, while other species have responded to climate change by migrating upslope, pikas are just dying off. Chris Ray wants to know more about why that is. She's tagging the ears of pikas and placing temperature sensors around their homes. After some preliminary research, she says, climate change is the only obvious explanation.

Ms. RAY: Ironically, it looks like global warming might be resulting in pikas freezing to death.

BRADY: That's because warmer temperatures have reduced the snowpack in the mountains, and pikas rely on snow for shelter from the cold wind.

Ms. RAY: A thick blanket of snow keeps the ground at approximately freezing and keeps it from going below freezing, whereas the air temperature can drop way below freezing. So, a pika under a thick blanket of snow, never experiences temperatures far below freezing.

BRADY: Ray says climate change also could be affecting pikas in the summer, when they gather cut grass and flowers to make hay. If it's too hot, they might not gather enough food to make it through the winter.

The pika has the potential to become a huge problem for industries that emit greenhouse gases. If it's listed under the Endangered Species Act, that would make pikas the first species in the continental U.S. to be listed because of climate change. The polar bear was listed last year, but its habitat is far away from the fossil fuel burning activities responsible for climate change.

The pika lives much closer, and industries are worried that could have a huge effect on the economy. For example, a listing could force the government to consider the effects of exploring for natural gas in the Rocky Mountains.

Richard Ranger is with the American Petroleum Institute.

Mr. RICHARD RANGER (Senior policy adviser, American Petroleum Institute): We're very concerned about policy developments that could constrain the development of natural gas which we think is a kind of a bridge to the sustainable per renewable energy future out a generation or more that many are seeking.

BRADY: Ranger says the Endangered Species Act is the wrong mechanism for dealing with climate change. He wants policymakers to do that through laws and regulations that give greater consideration to effects on the economy. He also says environmental groups just haven't made a good case that the pika is facing extinction in the near future.

Shaye Wolf is with the Center for Biological Diversity which filed the petition to list the pika. She says the government needs to consider a very long time horizon, because the climate will continue changing long after greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

Ms. SHAYE WOLF (Biologist, Center for Biological Diversity): The pika is sort of this alarm bell of impacts and losses to happen if we don't stop global warming. And importantly, the pika can act as an umbrella species to protect other wildlife in these mountain ecosystems.

BRADY: And Wolf says maybe that would prevent the government from having to list those species in the future. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce a decision on whether to list the pika early next year.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, DENVER.

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