Red tape may strangle cottontail rabbits

Activists sued last week to force authorities to do more to save a dwindling Northeastern species.

As champion for all things small, furry, and few, David Wade isn't shy about going to bat for bunnies. Which is why he filed a lawsuit last week to have the New England cottontail declared an endangered species.

Rabbits, which typically proliferate like, well, themselves, aren't too often on this end of the stick. But the New England cottontail is being decimated as fast-growing suburbs cut into its scrubby habitat and other more aggressive, invasive rabbit species combine to crowd them out.

Scientists have known that the New England cottontail – the only cottontail native to the region – was in sad shape since the early 1990s. Several groups, including Mr. Wade, petitioned for the rabbit's protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in August 2000.

But after nearly six years of waiting for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision, the cottontail just can't wait any longer, several experts say.

"This rabbit is pretty much a slam-dunk case," says Wade, founder of the Endangered Small Animal Conservation Fund, a nonprofit conservation foundation in Monmouth, Ill. "There's really no dispute about this. If we wait any longer, it may go extinct."

The population has fallen by more than 75 percent over the past 40 years, estimates John Litvaitis, a University of New Hampshire biologist who has studied the species. Some experts say fewer than 2,500 of the cottontails survive across the six New England states.

"There are so few of these animals left we needed to act," says Zibby Wilder, a spokeswoman for the Animal Protection Institute, an activist group based in Sacramento, Calif., that sued with Wade in federal court to try to force action. "The Fish and Wildlife Service has been dragging its feet, and someone needed to do something."

Fish and Wildlife Service officials deny any foot-dragging. In fact, they've been burrowing as fast as possible through mounds of paperwork and scientific studies for the New England cottontail and hundreds of other species whose status is similarly undetermined.

"It's not unusual for us to have this length of delay," says Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast region. "We have resources that are limited and priorities that are set – and sometimes that means we cannot work on petitions."

Still, she notes, the Northeast division completed its review and sent its recommendation to headquarters in Washington, D.C., last December. She wouldn't reveal what the recommendation was and did not know its status.

The government's cottontail backlog is part of a large and growing list. At least 282 animal and plant species nationwide are currently candidates for "threatened" or "endangered" status. Many species have already waited several years for a scientific evaluation and listing.

The requirements for being listed on the ESA are fairly straightforward, conservationists say. The act requires that decisions be based on the best available science and provides for a 90-day initial review followed by a 12-month scientific evaluation. But bureaucracy has slowed the process. Some nature-watchers, like Wade, charge that the Bush administration has mandated a go-slow approach.

"Some like to say habitat loss is the primary cause of extinction," says Kieran Suckling, policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a Tucson, Ariz., environmental group. "But you could also say bureaucratic delays are a primary cause."

While relatively few species that reach endangered status have gone extinct, the long wait to be listed is a contributing factor in extinction of many others, according to a CBD analysis. Of the 108 species declared extinct since the ESA passed in 1973, 42 died out during the listing process.

Of the 280-plus species under consideration for listing, the average wait so far is 17 years, the CBD found. Among those, 79 percent have been waiting to get on the list for at least 10 years, 38 percent have waited for 20 years, and 28 percent have waited since 1975. A species cannot be a candidate without at least a preliminary finding that it is endangered.

At present, the ESA – which currently protects 1,300 species – has been under threat of dramatic revision in the form of legislation by Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California. Mr. Pombo claims the ESA has a "zero" success rate in reviving species enough to remove them from the list. Others, however, say federal data show the act offers hope for species.

Populations of at least 38 of 41 endangered Northeastern plant and animal species have grown significantly in number or maintained stable populations since they were listed, the CBD reported this spring.

Though not yet officially protected, the New England cottontail is benefiting from a few efforts to help it survive. In Maine, where only about 300 of the species remain, cottontail hunting was banned in 2004. At the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine, workers are planting native bushes and removing invasive plants to create favorable cottontail habitat.

Advocates say the plight of this single rabbit species is more important than it might seem.

"It's an indicator species, a canary in the coal mine, and one sign of the potential loss of an entire habitat," Wade says. "If we can't save this little guy, dozens of other species are going to be in trouble."

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