For Immediate Release, March 6, 2023
Greta Anderson, Western Watersheds Project (520) 623-1878, firstname.lastname@example.org
Petition Seeks to Protect Pygmy Rabbits Under Endangered Species Act
SALT LAKE CITY— Conservation organizations submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today requesting protection of pygmy rabbits under the Endangered Species Act.
The rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) depend on the sagebrush steppe ecosystems of the Sagebrush Sea for their survival and are at risk of extinction because of habitat loss and disease. They’ve lost considerable habitat to development, extraction, invasive nonnative grasses, and wildfire.
“Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, pygmy rabbits are one of the most endearing and charismatic creatures of the Sagebrush Sea, but unfortunately they are also one of the most at risk of extinction,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Our petition demonstrates the serious threats the species is facing throughout its range, and it needs federal protection to ensure its survival into the future.”
Pygmy rabbits are the world’s smallest, weighing from a half pound to just over a pound. They require intact sagebrush for virtually all their winter diet and for cover from predators. They also need areas with deep soil for constructing burrows where they shelter from predators and safeguard their babies. Pygmy rabbits are found in parts of Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, California, and Oregon.
“We’re watching the slow-motion extinction of these tiny, mighty pygmy rabbits right before our eyes,” said Randi Spivak, public lands 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 little creatures need to survive.”
The once-vast Sagebrush Sea is under stress from fire intensified by invasive plants, development, livestock grazing, oil and gas extraction, drought and climate change. An estimated 1.3 million acres are lost every year, with just 13.6% of the original ecosystem still ecologically intact, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report. Scientists have recommended stronger conservation management for the Sagebrush Sea and identified a network of places that should be prioritized for protection because they are relatively intact or could be restored.
Within the past 50 years, populations of the once-common pygmy rabbits have progressively dwindled, according to state surveys. In Wyoming their population has declined by 69% to just 15% occupancy. Utah has alarmingly low occupancy rates of just 7% to 13%; occupancy rates average 23% in Idaho and 22% in Nevada.
“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.”
Pygmy rabbits were first proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1991. In 2003 several conservation groups submitted another petition. In September 2010 the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the rabbits were not warranted for listing. It acknowledged the threats to pygmy rabbits from habitat loss and degradation, development, livestock grazing, conversion and energy development, but said it did not have enough data to show those threats rose to the level of extinction risk.
“We lose more than 1 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. “The Endangered Species Act was made for moments like this: to help focus federal restoration and conservation efforts in the Sagebrush Sea and to give this little rabbit a fighting chance.”
New occupancy surveys point to dramatic population declines and low occupancy rates. The pace of habitat loss and degradation of the sagebrush habitat upon which the rabbit depends has accelerated to unsustainable levels. Given the rabbits’ high dependency on sagebrush and perennial grasses, increasing loss of sagebrush habitat is a direct threat to their survival. In addition, an emerging virus first detected in pygmy rabbits in 2022 poses a serious threat to their survival.
“As a sagebrush specialist, the pygmy rabbit relies on one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America,” said Joe Bushyhead, endangered species attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “Endangered Species Act listing offers the best and perhaps only chance to protect the rabbit’s rapidly vanishing habitat and stop its slide toward extinction.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.