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Western groups file petition to protect continent's smallest rabbit

Pygmy Rabbit Relocation
Picasa/randimal -
Pygmy Rabbit Relocation

Pygmy rabbit habitat, the so-called Sagebrush Sea of the Intermountain West, stretches from Oregon to Wyoming. At less than a pound, the rabbit takes shelter in the sagebrush to hide from predators and look for food.

Miranda Crowell, a University of Nevada, Reno researcher and PhD candidate who studies pygmy rabbits in southeastern Oregon and Nevada, said the Sagebrush Sea is under threat.

"Sagebrush habitat historically has been converted to agriculture and has been heavily grazed, and so the habitat is just continuing to be degraded and fragmented over time and their suitable habitat is shrinking," Crowell said.

Groups across the West filed a petition on Monday to list the pygmy rabbit under the Endangered Species Act.

Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst with the group Defenders of Wildlife, said because the pygmy rabbit relies on sagebrush, threats to the habitat are threats to the species. Wildfires present one of the biggest threats and are a growing problem.

"Fire's a natural part of our western habitats and ecosystems," she said, "but with climate change fires are becoming bigger and more frequent. In the past 40 years, we've seen about 26 million acres in the pygmy habitat range burn. That's about 15%," said Smith.

Smith added invasive species like cheatgrass also increase the risk from wildfires, and a contagious and deadly virus is threatening pygmy rabbits as well, she said.

She said the rabbits' burrows create shelter for other species and also provide food and improve the habitat in other ways.

"What they leave behind can contribute to nutrient recycling in the soil. So they're just really an important species for the maintenance and function of sagebrush ecosystems," she said.