U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do Status Review on the pygmy rabbit

Conservation groups, alarmed at the decline in the pygmy rabbit, petitioned USFWS way back in 2003 that it be added to the endangered species list. In March 2006, the USFWS rejected their petition as “not warranted.” That is ESA legal language for “not needed.”

Western Watersheds Project, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Center for Native Ecosystems, Oregon Natural Deserts Association, and the Sagebrush Sea Project took them to federal court which overturned the Service and told them to look at it again. Now USFWS has announced they will do a Status Review (the second ESA step in a listing). It is a detailed analysis of the actual status and condition of the species, and is not supposed to be influenced by politics or economics.

Story: Feds to Mull Protection for Pygmy Rabbit. AP. Nicholas K. Geranios. PHOTO of pygmy rabbit.

Petitioners to list the pygmy rabbit issued this news release Jan. 8 after the good news


For Immediate Release
January 8, 2008

Katie Fite, Western Watersheds Project, (208) 871-5738
Todd Tucci, Advocates for the West, (208) 342-7024
Duane Short, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, (307) 742-7978 or (270) 366-3415
Jacob Smith, Center for Native Ecosystems, (303) 546-0214
Bill Marlett, Oregon Natural Desert Association, (541) 330-2638
Mark Salvo, Sagebrush Sea Campaign, (503) 757-4221

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Announces Positive ESA Finding for Pygmy Rabbit

On January 8th U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a positive 90-day finding on a petition to list the pygmy rabbit as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In April 2003, conservation groups and concerned citizens submitted a formal petition to list the rare and unique pygmy rabbit as threatened or endangered and to have critical habitat designated for its protection. The Service initially found the rabbit not warranted to be listed on the basis that scientific or commercial information presented by the petitioners was insufficient. In March 2006 Western Watersheds Project, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Center for Native Ecosystems, Oregon Natural Deserts Association, and the Sagebrush Sea Project filed suit to challenge the Services 90-day finding.

In September of 2007, the court issued a judgment stating that the Service found the Service’s denial of the petition was contrary to the applicable law. Advocates for the West represented the plaintiff groups in the case.

Pygmy rabbits, first discovered by naturalist C. Hart Merriam in the Pahsimeroi country of central Idaho, were once a characteristic native mammal over large areas of the Interior West. Pygmy rabbits have a very small home range focused on dense sagebrush cover. They dig their own burrows in soils under dense sagebrush, and in winter dig tunnels under the snow. Pygmies rely entirely on sagebrush as winter food, but in summer also eat native bunchgrasses.

Duane Short, Wild Species Program Director at Biodiversity Conservation Alliance noted, “While this court judgment is a step toward victory for the pygmy rabbit, Fish & Wildlife should act immediately to list this species. As rapidly as oil and gas development is fragmenting and destroying pygmy rabbit habitat, threats to its continued survival are increasing.” Short added, “Pygmy rabbits are especially vulnerable to habitat fragmentation from road networks, because these animals are too shy and cautious to venture out from the cover of sagebrush to cross a road. For this reason, the huge level of oil and gas development targeting sagebrush basins in Wyoming is a major threat to the pygmy rabbit.”

Extensive oil and gas development in Jonah Field and Atlantic Rim has been permitted by the BLM without the slightest consideration of its impacts to the disturbance sensitive pygmy rabbit. High density oil and gas development results in long-term sagebrush habitat destruction and constant disturbance to remaining pygmy rabbit habitat. Added threats to the pygmies include poor livestock grazing practices that are tolerated and even encouraged by the BLM and Forest Service.

Katie Fite, Biodiversity Director at Western Watersheds Project explained, “Grazing simplifies and destroys the dense and complex structure of sagebrush necessary to protect pygmy rabbits from eagles and other aerial predators. BLM and the Forest, under pressure from the livestock industry, are essentially carrying out a war on the best remaining pygmy habitats of dense mature and old growth sagebrush. Burning, mowing, chopping, disking and even herbiciding old growth sagebrush are routine BLM and Forest Service activities carried out in the name of restoration and Healthy Forests Fuels projects. This sagebrush killing is identical to livestock forage projects of the past – just called something else.”

Cattle destroy the pygmies’ protective cover provided by sagebrush, and deplete their summer food supply of bunchgrass. Cattle trampling collapses pygmy rabbit burrows, especially shallow natal burrows where pygmy rabbits care for their young, called kits. Livestock facilities like pipelines and fences being punched across public lands fragment and ultimately destroy the sagebrush communities required by this imperiled rabbit.

Under the best of circumstances, recovery of suitable pygmy rabbit sagebrush community structure may take a half century or more. Now, with global warming, there is a grave risk of cheatgrass invasion and worsening fuels problems following this wanton treatment disturbance that makes public lands hotter, drier and more prone to weed invasion, especially when chronic grazing disturbance is heaped on top of treatments.
“Sagebrush dependent wildlife, from pygmy rabbits to sage grouse, are under siege from the dual forces of livestock grazing and cheatgrass-driven fires, turning thousands of acres of the West into a barren moonscape,” said Bill Marlett, Executive Director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
Advocates for the West, Todd Tucci, Senior Staff Attorney said, “The Fish and Wildlife finding that the pygmy rabbit may be warranted for listing and threatened or endangered comes on the heels of a decision to revisit its 2004 decision that found the sage grouse not warranted for listing. This trend of the Service revisiting former decisions that denied protection for imperiled species indicates how severely the entire western sagebrush ecosystem is being impacted by oil and gas development and improper livestock grazing practices.”

“The pygmy rabbit’s habitat is more threatened than ever before by so-called ‘off-site mitigation’ projects conducted by oil and gas companies,” added Josh Pollock of Center for Native Ecosystems. “We simply cannot afford to lose any more of our Sagebrush Sea environment, especially the stands of tall, mature sagebrush which serve so many wildlife species.”

Mark Salvo, Director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign said, “The pygmy rabbit is another in a long list of residents of the Sagebrush Sea that face an uncertain future,” said Mark Salvo, director of the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for Forest Guardians. “The sagebrush-steppe ecosystem is in tatters, and if the pygmy rabbit could talk, it would tell us so.”

– END –





  1. Cowboy the Cat Avatar

    I did a little pygmy rabbit work in WY. If we’re conservationists are looking for an animal to list to help stem the tide of wild-land development, I’m not sure the pygmy rabbit is it. When they say “small home range” they ain’t kidding. They rarely venture more than 20 meters or so from their burrows, if I remember correctly. That’s perfect for claims of “sustainable development,” because the space between well pads wil be considered more than enough. They are cute, though, and cute is good for publicity. I know it’s a cynical way to look at it, and I should be concerned for the animal itself, rather than what it can get my cause, but I’m a habitat guy, and any tools to help sustain and improve habitat are my concerns. So I’ll use the plight of a cute little bunny to further ecological conservation in general if I have to. Eggs and omelets, you know.

  2. kt Avatar

    Cowboy: You can’t maintain viable populations with habitat fragmentation – which is exactly what Oil and Gas and the horrendous landscape-level simplification of necessary sagebrush habitat components from livestock grazing do to pygmy habitat. In an animal that does not have much capacity to disperse across large distances, the effects of fragmentation are all the more IMPORTANT!

  3. d. Bailey Hill Avatar

    A couple of questions-
    There is a lot i do not know about the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem. Having said that my question is, If there are more animals endangered in any specific area, can that help in any way to secure better protection overall for any one ecosystem?
    and -If an area is fragmented as you mention for the bunnies would it be any easier to keep those areas connected for protection for the good of a predators and bunnies alike?

  4. JB Avatar


    My answer to your first question is an unqualified…”maybe!” It would depend on the species involved and what measures FWS decided to take to protect them.

    Having multiple endangered species in an area can also hurt species/ecosystems, as was in evidence in the Klamath incident a few years back. Endangered sucker in the reservoir needs more water, endangered fish in the river need more water, oh shit, what do we do? If you’re the Bush administration, you give the water to the farmers!

    Enough of my cynicism [sorry]. I’ll let someone more knowledgeable address your second question.

  5. Cowboy the Cat Avatar

    Kt, (and this should answer DBH as well)

    As you know, how fragmentation affects an animal depends mainly on two factors: the scale at which the animal operates, and the affect of the fragmentation on things that the animal is dependent on. In the case of a pygmy rabbit, an herbavore that does not generally disperse very long distances, I can see a hypothetical scenario in which it could be successfully argued (by advocates of development and the current administration) that the amount of fragmentation caused by oil and gas development would not significantly impact the pygmy rabbit (there is after all SOME space between the wells, right?). I would not even be suprised if industry and their “consultants” argued that oil and gas development actually HELPS the pygmy rabbit by scaring off its predators. Obviously this argument wouldn’t hold for grazing.

    If this sounds far fetched to you, let me tell you it isn’t. I used to work for the BLM, and heard arguments like this all the time.

    This is why I say if you want an animal to hang your hat on as the savior of the sagebrush, the pygmy rabbit probably wouldn’t do… at least to stop or slow energy development. Now listing the sage grouse… that would do major damage to the drilling “machine.” mountain plover, too.

    DBH, as to your question about endangered species: If I understand you correctly, I think you are asking if more than one threatened species is dependent on a habitat type, does that mean there is a better chance for conservation… That depends on how rare the habitat type is. In the case of Sage, well… they don’t call it the “sagebrush sea” for nothing. However, there are microhabitats within the sagebrush steppe ecosystem that are much more important to some animals, and they are not well quantified (we don’t know where a lot of it is). The Endangered Species Act, by it’s nature, promotes a “speicies level” management approach. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, but through the years, the best science has shown that except in the case of animals that are near zero population, a “landscape level” approach to management is better at maintaining ecosystem integrity and ultimately it benefits endangered species as much as any species level management. Basically the idea is, if you maintain the habitat, the critters will do alright. So with the most powerful tool that ecologist and biologists have to work with (the legal power of the ESA) we have to kind of fit a square peg into a round hole by listing an animal, and using that listing to protect habitat, as much the animal itself. It’s a convoluted system, but it’s the best we have and I’m afraid that in the current political atmosphere if we tried to re-work it, we’d get something much worse.

    These are my own interpretations from my personal experience, of course.

  6. d. Bailey Hill Avatar

    Thank you for the information Cowboy the cat. I read a quote recently , i think It’s Thomas Linzey’s.

    “The only thing that environmental law regulates is environmentalists.”

    This clearly explains why so many people, myself included, have gone way beyond a healthy amount of cynicism.

  7. Salle Avatar

    It might interest some of you to know that the term, “environmentalist” came from the media. I call myself a conservationist. I don’t know what an environmentalist is, really.

    I do call myself a cynic though.

  8. Salle Avatar

    And, lest we forget…

    The Bush Inc. administration has been diligently trying to undermine, if not destroy, the ESA for years and has been trying to do so while silencing the scientists who have made major contributions to the salvation of species that should be listed but are not for the sake of housing and industrial park developers ever since they came into office. Now they are also trying to remove all species from the list that are on it for the same reasons. They also are trying to discredit anyone who opposes this agenda.

  9. Brian Ertz Avatar

    610 days since the last listed species.

  10. JB Avatar

    I was going to try to compile this data, but since its a lot of work, I thought I’d ask first! 😉 Has anyone assembled a list of endangered species along with the amount of time (# of years/days) that they spent on the candidate list?

  11. Mack P. Bray Avatar
    Mack P. Bray

    376 days until Bush, Inc. is replaced with a new adminstration.

    Mack P. Bray
    My opinions are my own


  12. Maska Avatar

    JB, I believe the Center for Biological Diversity maintains lists of endangered species, along with information on how long they have been on the candidate list, etc. I’m not sure if they have all of them, but I know they keep amazingly complete records on these issues. Check their website at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org for information and contact info.

  13. Maska Avatar

    JB, to narrow down your search a little on the Center for Biological Diversity site, try going to the page entitled “Library,” and then click on “Research Papers.” There’s a long list of them, including anayses of endangered species listings over a number of years and similar topics. Much of what you are looking for should be there.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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