Secretive rabbit sought out for data collection
A small rabbit in the cottontail family that is frequently mistaken for a young cottontail, the pygmy rabbit is beginning to gain more recognition and consideration in Wyoming.
“The pygmy rabbit likes tall, dense sagebrush, and since it’s relatively small and secretive, you don’t see it running around like jackrabbits,” says Brian Kelly of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) Wyoming Field Office.
“Historically, biologists haven’t had much data because we haven’t gone out and looked for it, but we tend to be seeing it in more places than we thought it really existed,” he says.
The pygmy rabbit is found mostly on Wyoming’s western side, though there have been unconfirmed reports of it ranging as far east as Rawlins. The rabbit’s main habitat is located in the Great Basin, including Utah, Idaho and Nevada.
Wyoming USFWS biologist Pat Deibert agrees, saying that as surveys are conducted, the pygmy rabbit is being found in a lot wider distribution than originally thought. Historically the rabbit has been studied at the Fossil Butte National Monument in southwestern Wyoming.
“They’re absolutely sagebrush dependent, as it is 99 percent of their diet, and they’re the only rabbit to dig their own burrow so they require sandy soils,” says Deibert. “They like older and very dense sagebrush.”
Because sage grouse don’t typically use those kinds of habitats, save possibly in the winter, Deibert says management of the two species doesn’t overlap much, except for the broad fact that they’re both sagebrush dependent. “Typically, if you’re doing habitat management for sage grouse nesting or brood rearing, that’s not what the rabbits need. If we start converting pygmy rabbit habitat to sage grouse nesting or brood rearing habitat, then we actually have a conflict between the two.”
“If a landowner has pygmy rabbits on his land, then he’s doing the right thing. The pygmy rabbit only ranges 300 yards in its entire life, so they have an incredibly small home range,” explains Deibert. “One thing a rancher can do is any time they want to do a sagebrush treatment for forage reasons, to work with people to determine if they do have the rabbit and see if there are portions they can leave intact as habitat while at the same time still meeting their forage goals.”
Deibert says most of the data collection on pygmy rabbits has come through research at Fossil Butte and the surveys for new energy or housing developments. “Anything that’s takes away sagebrush is going to take away the rabbits, but I’ve not known that it’s occurring at any significant rates in Wyoming,” she says.
“We don’t have any evidence that suggests the pygmy rabbits are not doing well in Wyoming, although they’re not doing so well in other states,” says Deibert.
A court-ordered 90-day finding from the USFWS is what has spurred recent interest in the pygmy rabbit. “The way we proceed with deciding whether a species warrants protection is to find out how it’s doing in a general sense. The 90-day finding is the mechanism most often triggered by a petition, which is allowed by a process within the Endangered Species Act that allows anybody to submit a petition if they think a species is in trouble,” says Kelly.
“After the petition is submitted we look at it and decide if there’s a substantial claim that would trigger us to look a little closer. In that closer look we don’t go outside our agency, we just look at what’s in our files on the species,” he explains.
Now that the 90-day finding is complete, the issue has moved into a 12-month finding, or status review. “Right now we’re in the three- to 12-month period where our public comment period is open to information on how the rabbits are doing from both sides of the debate. We’re looking for data, not opinions,” says Kelly.
“We’re not getting ready to list the pygmy rabbit,” emphasizes Kelly. “If, after 12 months, the Service decides the species is in trouble and warrants protection, we would either preclude it from listing and make it a ‘candidate species’ with only a little bit of regulatory oversight that raises a warning flag saying we recognize it’s in trouble. The reason we wouldn’t propose to list it under those circumstances is that we have other priorities before us.
“Or, if we did want to list it, we’d have to go through a proposal process after the 12 months are up, which would take the better part of another year. It’s noteworthy that we’ve done a 90-day finding, but right now we’re just asking people to summarize what they know about the species and how it’s doing and what its threats are.”
Christy Hemken is the assistant and crop editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Comments on this article may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.