Oregon: Endangered status sought for pygmy rabbit


The Oregonian

The pygmy rabbit, a palm-sized bunny that once ranged across 100 million acres of Western sagebrush country, faces extinction in Oregon and seven other states, say conservation groups seeking federal endangered species protection.

Endangered status potentially could limit cattle grazing, mining and other uses on 7 million to 8 million acres of mostly federally owned land where the rabbits still exist. In a petition filed this week, the groups ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish critical habitat areas for all remaining pygmy rabbit populations outside of Washington.

Washington's isolated population of pygmy rabbit, called the Columbia Basin pygmy, was listed as endangered in 2001 -- after the last known colony dwindled to fewer than 30 animals. Now probably extinct in the wild, that group has its fate hinging on captive breeding attempts by the Oregon Zoo and Washington State University.

"That's where the rest of the populations are headed," said Katie Fite, director of the Boise-based Committee for the High Desert, one of the petitioning groups. "The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to act, and act decisively before we get to crisis mode."

Fite's group and others contend that federal agencies have ignored evidence of collapsing populations and have allowed cattle grazing to destroy remaining strongholds of dense sagebrush the rabbits use as food and hiding places from hawks and other predators.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said the agency has not yet reviewed the petition and so declined comment. The agency has 90 days to decide whether the request meets legal requirements for an endangered species review, a 12-month process.

"We know the populations are way down," said Jeff Dillon, a Fish and Wildlife biologist.

Pygmies are North America's smallest rabbit, averaging less than a pound. Full-grown adults can curl easily in the palm of a hand.

They dig burrows in loose soils and can't survive without sagebrush. In winter, sagebrush accounts for nearly all of the rabbits' food. Sagebrush also protects rabbits from coyotes, weasels, badgers and raptors.

Farm plows, grazing cattle, invasive weeds and other changes wrought by people have taken away as much as 90 percent of the rabbit's historic range.

"What we are dealing with is the overall alteration of the sagebrush landscape, and that goes back to the primary factor, that is, livestock grazing," said Bill Marlett, executive director of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, one of the petitioning groups.

The petitioners say federal agencies have given livestock priority over native plants and animals. While cattle collapse burrows and trample sagebrush, the groups say habitat also is being lost to policies meant to improve conditions for livestock, such as prescribed fires, planting of forage plants and thinning of sagebrush stands.

Historical maps show pygmy rabbits inhabiting a broad swath of Southeast Oregon. In a 2001 survey not yet published, biologists searched 100 historical rabbit sites and 100 potential new sites in Oregon. They found active burrows at less than 5 percent of the locations.


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