From: Juliana Barbassa, Associated Press
Published December 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Endangered Rabbits Returned to Wild

VERNALIS, Calif. — A canvas sack was rolled back to reveal a tiny, quivering rabbit that blinked twice in the daylight, then bolted into a tangle of blackberry bushes.


"It's like being plunked down in a big city you've never seen before," said wildlife biologist Laurissa Hamilton as she released the riparian brush rabbit into dense vegetation alongside the San Joaquin River.


The one-pound animal was one of seven released Friday on the privately owned Faith Ranch as part of a five year, $2.6 million effort to restore one of California's most endangered mammals.


By the end of next week, researchers will have released 30 animals -- enough to start a population experts hope will become self-sustaining and help the rabbit hop off federal and state endangered species lists.


The animal, smaller than the dwarf rabbits commonly kept as pets, once thrived along the Central Valley's meandering rivers, but its population dwindled as the region was plowed and paved to accommodate farms and cities.


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Only about 10 percent of the original riparian vegetation remains, Hamilton said. Without the thick growth, the rabbit is exposed to predators -- raccoons, coyotes and birds of prey.


When the species was listed as endangered five years ago, biologists were only aware of one small population living in a state park, which was nearly wiped out by a flood in 1997.


Since then, a partnership of academic researchers, private landowners and government agencies have established a rabbit community a few miles down river.


They hope animals just released will form the second of three strong populations needed to take the animal off the protected species list.


"Tremendous strides have been made in a short time, and it's looking very promising," said program coordinator Patrick Kelly. "This is going to be one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act."


The bunnies' reproductive habits certainly helped. Half a dozen rabbits put in a protected, one-acre enclosure can become a thriving community a year later with 65 to 80 animals, Hamilton said.


But another key to the success was the cooperation of private landowners, experts said.


The parents of the animals released this week were found on a large farm that will soon be surrounded by suburban development. The owner helped researchers capture the animals, which were then taken to pens near Lodi for reproduction.


Faith Ranch, the 2,000-acre property that welcomed the rabbits into its stands of century-old oaks, cottonwoods and lush undergrowth, belongs to the wine-making Gallo family. The property became part of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge when the Gallo family entered into a conservation easement agreement that allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to manage some areas to support wildlife.


"Our family was thrilled about the idea of helping out something that's going extinct," Tom Gallo said.


The preservation of rabbit habitat could bode well for other threatened species.


In June, another endangered riparian animal, a chatty songbird called the least Bell's vireo, was spotted in the area after a 60-year absence.


Source: Associated Press


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