Can America’s West stay wild?
Policy on vast public lands has favored ranchers. Demographics and economics may alter that equation now.
In 1993, Washington State classified its Columbia Basin Pygmy rabbit, a burrowing one-pound resident of sagebrush thickets, as endangered. Farming and other human activity had greatly limited the deep-soil habitat available to the bunny.Skip to next paragraph
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In 2001, the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated the rabbit, one of only two burrowing species in North America, as “endangered.” Alarmed by the animal’s continuing decline, that year state officials captured 16 rabbits and began a captive-breeding program to try to ensure the rabbits’ continued existence. By 2003, fewer than 30 rabbits lived in the wild, down from 250 in 1995. By 2004, they were all gone.
For many, the disappearance of this tiny denizen of sagebrush thickets is a cautionary tale. Captive breeding programs are a noble last resort, they say. But in this case, not enough was done to save the wild population, they charge. While several factors outside of scientists’ direct control contributed to the rabbits’ demise – disease, fire, loss of genetic diversity, and habitat fragmentation, in particular – one factor squarely within human control was not addressed soon enough: livestock grazing. Although the state had recognized the rabbit as threatened in 1990, cows weren’t taken from the state-owned Sagebrush Flat, the bunny’s last known home, until 2001.
Here, the tale of the pygmy rabbit intersects with a long-raging acrimonious debate in the US West. Just over half the land in the West is public land. And what are public lands for – the preservation of “pristine” nature or resource extraction?
Historically, management of these lands by state and federal agencies has favored resource extractors far more than conservationists would like. But as western economies change and demographics shift, this emphasis on extraction makes less and less sense, economists say.
Meanwhile, attempts to reintroduce captive-bred pygmy rabbits into the wild have so far failed. Of 20 freed in 2007, predators killed 18. Scientists returned the remaining two to captivity. With genetic diversity low, in 2005 scientists added Idaho pygmy rabbits, a close relative. The hybrid offspring were more robust. But in 2006, the last purebred male rabbit died. In coming years, scientists plan to attempt reintroduction of the hybrid rabbit, three-quarters native, again. But the pure Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit is now genetically extinct.
Did cattle push the rabbits over the edge?
Steve Herman, a biologist emeritus at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., says cattle may have pushed the animals over the edge. At the site, scientists observed trampled rabbit burrows and broken sagebrush, which the rabbit needs for both food and protection from predators. When cows were finally removed, “it was too late,” he says. “We’ve lost a life form, and it’s likely that our species [is] responsible.”
Matthew Monda, the Washington (State) Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) wildlife program director for Region 2, counters that although observers had noted trampled burrows and the rabbits were in obvious decline, there was no decisive evidence that grazing was responsible. In fact, he adds, since cows and rabbits had coexisted for perhaps 100 years to that point, some worried that removing cows might make things worse. WDFW initiated a study to determine “if the grazing that occurred on the area was good, bad, or ugly.” But when the rabbit populations declined precipitously, the study was halted and the cows removed.