Are pygmy rabbits endangered? Groups seek protections

Wildlife conservation groups have petitioned the federal government to list the pygmy rabbit as endangered.

Wildlife conservation groups have petitioned the federal government to list the pygmy rabbit as endangered. (Miranda Maurine Crowell)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A coalition of conservation groups are seeking federal protections for the pygmy rabbit, aptly named because as the smallest rabbit in the world, you can hold it in the palm of your hand.

Weighing a pound or less, the tiny creature is fast losing its home of sagebrush habitat in Utah and other parts of the West due to wildfires, the growth of invasive species like cheatgrass and development.

"We lose more than one million acres of sagebrush every year — habitat that the pygmy rabbit depends on for survival," said Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife.

In addition, the rabbit tested positive for a devastating disease that not only impacts its survival rate, but that of other species.

In their petition for an endangered listing, groups that include the Western Watersheds Project, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity cite these population surveys that show the decline or low occupancy rates over the last 50 years:

  • Wyoming, down by 69%.
  • Utah's occupancy rate is only between 7% and 13%.
  • Idaho has an occupancy rate of 23%, while Nevada is at 22%.

"We're watching the slow-motion extinction of these tiny, mighty pygmy rabbits right before our eyes," said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "This is the biodiversity crisis playing out in real time. The alarm bell for pygmy rabbits has been ringing for a long time, but now the loss of their habitat is accelerating. It's time to bring the power of the Endangered Species Act to bear and protect the habitat these creatures need to survive."

Efforts so far

The groups say the pygmy rabbit was first proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1991 and then re-petitioned in 2003. In September 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the rabbits were not warranted for listing.

While the agency acknowledged the threat to pygmy rabbits from habitat loss and degradation, development, livestock grazing, conversion and energy development, it said it did not have enough data to show the threats rose to the level of an extinction risk.

As the West continues to develop, the risks continue.

"I have studied populations of pygmy rabbits across multiple states over the last seven years and I share concerns of other researchers who have also detected population declines," said Miranda Crowell, a pygmy rabbit researcher with the University of Nevada, Reno. "They appear to be declining and less able to recover because of the continued degradation and fragmentation of the sagebrush-steppe."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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