The rabbit-like American pika (Ochotona princeps) got lucky this week. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, responding to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice, has agreed to assess whether the increasingly rare animal qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm in Oakland, Calif, says that the move makes the pika the first mammal outside of Alaska to be considered for protection due to threats resulting from global warming.

The American pika, a tiny cousin of the rabbit, lives in cold mountain peaks in the U.S., where the 36 pika sub-species have adapted for a very specific environment. Most pikas live in areas where temperatures do not rise above freezing or 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) for more than half the year. According to the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., the pika can overheat and die when exposed to temperatures as low as 78 degrees F for just a few hours.

Unfortunately, rising temperatures from global warming appear to have made the normal pika territories increasingly inhospitable, according to research presented in the Center for Biological Diversity's original 2007 petition (PDF) to protect the species. Pika have disappeared from more than a third of their previously known habitats in Nevada and Oregon, and other populations have moved nearly 1,000 feet upslope from where they used to be found.

According to Earthjustice, global warming threatens pikas by shortening their food-gathering season (they hoard food for the winter like chipmunks), changing the types of plants that grow where they live, reducing the insulating snowpack that protects them during the coldest months, and, worst of all, causing the animals to die from overheating.

Under the settlement, FWS will conduct its initial assessment of the species by May.

Image via Wikimedia