The pygmy rabbit will not be listed under the Endangered Species Act for protection in California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana said US Fish and Wildlife officials. A very small population of the tiny rabbits is legally protected as endangered in Washington state. This group of rabbits would have perished, but conservationists intervened and captured them for a captive breeding program. But there were so few, they had to be crossbred with pygmy rabbits from Idaho. Genetically pure Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits did go extinct. (The protected Washington population is a hybrid rabbit.)
The reason they were driven into extinction is that too much of their habitat had been converted into agricultural lands, and their numbers gradually declined to the point of no return. Sagebrush makes up the majority of the rabbit’s diet and much of the land with sagebrush has been taken over. In winter, they eat 98 percent sagebrush. (Source: University of Michigan) (The Gunnison Grouse was also recently denied protection, and it too depends upon habitat with sagebrush.)
The remaining pygmy rabbits (outside of Washington state) have been denied status as endangered. Apparently not much is known about pygmy rabbits. Even the US Fish and Wildlife Service said this in their recent press release, “We ask that any new information concerning the status of species or threats to it be submitted to us, at any time, to assist in monitoring the species and conservation efforts.” (Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service) In their press release no population numbers were provided for wild pygmy rabbits. Wildlife biologist Erik Molvar said, “…no question pygmies face severe threats throughout their range.” (Source: Reuters.com)
The rabbit was under review for endangerment status because population declines due to their sagebrush habitat converted to agricultural purposes, livestock grazing, urban and rural development, energy development, invasive plant species, and fires.
If the larger population of pygmy rabbits continues to decline, they may face a situation similar to the tragedy in Washington. Ivan Oranksy, in Scientific American wrote, “Isolation, and the resulting dwindling numbers, severely damaged the pygmy rabbits’ gene pool, making the animals prone to infection.”
A one-pound burrowing rabbit appears to be no match for a federal government influenced by agriculture, and oil and gas lobbyists. Also, it is not off limits to hunting. Field and Stream wrote a response to the denial of protection asking its readers if the rabbit is too cute to hunt. Predictably, the answer was no.
Image Credit: Washington State University