NEW YORK, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The U.S. government has agreed to study whether the American pika, a tiny cold-loving relative of the rabbit, should be protected under the Endangered Species Act due to warmer temperatures, scientists said on Thursday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to determine whether the pika warrants protection under the act by May. If so, it must then decide whether it should be designated an endangered species nine months after that, they said.
The pika could become the first species outside Alaska to get protection due to global warming. Last May the government listed polar bears as threatened because their sea ice habitat was melting away.
"All the evidence we have suggests global warming will cause the species to go extinct and many populations have already been wiped out," Greg Loarie, an attorney for the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice, said in an interview.
Loarie represented the Center for Biological Diversity in a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service last year. It challenged the government to make a finding on whether the species was endangered because of rising temperatures.
The agency did not immediately return phone calls about the agreement.
Nobody knows how many pikas, which live high up in mountain ranges including the Rockies, the Sierra Nevadas and the Cascades, are left.
But biologists say more than a third of pika populations in the Great Basin mountains of Nevada and Oregon have gone extinct in the last century as temperatures have warmed. Those that remain are found an average of 900 feet (275 metres) farther up.
Pikas can die from overheating when exposed to temperatures as low as 78 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) for a few hours, the Center for Biological Diversity said. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Xavier Briand)