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Groups petition to protect the world’s smallest rabbit as sagebrush habitat shrinks

USFWS photo courtesy of Sarah Arnoff
Flickr Creative Commons

News brief: 

Advocates are asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the pygmy rabbit under the Endangered Species Act. They sent a petition to federal officials in early March, arguing that the world’s smallest rabbit is at risk of extinction due to habitat loss and disease.

The pygmy rabbit weighs about a pound and can fit in the palm of your hand. It lives in sagebrush habitats across the Great Basin, feeding on native grasses, and its historical range includes parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, California, Nevada and Utah.

But now, the West's “Sagebrush Sea” ecosystem is shrinking by about 1.3 million acres every year, according to a report published last year by the U.S. Geological Survey. Factors including invasive species, climate change, wildfires, drought and energy development are all contributing to this decline.

“As goes the sagebrush, so goes wildlife populations throughout the West,” said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. “The most sensitive and most specialized species like the pygmy rabbit are the first ones to show signs of distress.”

It's among the ecosystem's more than 350 "species of conservation concern," according to the USGS, which also include the greater sage-grouse, pronghorn and prairie dog.

Molvar said pygmy rabbit populations have slowly dwindled in previous decades.

“Only about 15 percent of the sagebrush habitat out there is still in more or less pristine ecological condition,” he said. “The pygmy rabbit is indicative of many rare sagebrush species that are getting scarcer and scarcer.”

This is the second time since 2003 that environmental groups have petitioned to protect the pygmy rabbit. The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected that earlier effort. Federal officials now have 90 days to decide whether or not to take further action.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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