Sat, Feb

Washington Landowners to Help Pygmy Rabbits

On a sprawling central Washington wheat farm, state and federal officials signed a landmark agreement Tuesday to create a "safe harbor" for reintroduction of the tiny Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit.

EPHRATA, Wash. -- Now all they need is the rabbits. On a sprawling central Washington wheat farm, state and federal officials signed a landmark agreement Tuesday to create a "safe harbor" for reintroduction of the tiny Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, which was listed as an endangered species in 2001 and whose impending return has raised concerns among area farmers that the bunnies could bust their business.

Pygmy rabbits are the smallest rabbits in North America, weighing about 1 pound, and one of only two rabbit species that dig burrows in deep soil. They are found in shrub-steppe habitat with plenty of sagebrush.

The Columbia Basin rabbit, however, has been an isolated population for thousands of years and differs genetically from other pygmy rabbits. None are believed to exist in the wild, and only three purebred rabbits remain in captivity _ one male and two females who haven't always been in the mood to mate.

Their fate has rested in a captive breeding program begun in 2001 with the related Idaho pygmy rabbit. There are now 115 interbred rabbits, and wildlife biologists plan to introduce between 20-40 rabbits with genetic markers that are no less than 75 percent Columbia Basin rabbit to a nearby wildlife area in early February.

The agreement signed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife is as much for landowners as it is for the rabbits. It allows landowners, after a survey of their land for any wild rabbits, to pay $50 for a permit to be absolved of any harm for violating the Endangered Species Act if they incidentally kill or hurt a rabbit while operating their farm.

At the same time, farmers agree to notify state and federal officials if the pygmy rabbits have wandered onto their property from nearby sagebrush stands or if they are beginning any field work that could potentially endanger them.

The permits would be valid for 20 years, after which they could be renewed if pygmy rabbit populations haven't recovered.

"I view it as an insurance policy," said Dave Billingsley, a cattle rancher in the nearby community of Palisades, whose own property, as well as property he leases for grazing, abuts the reintroduction zone.

"Aside from the $50 fee, which is part of the insurance policy," he said, chuckling, "I consider it the best thing we've got in a bad situation."

Three landowners have signed on to the program so far, but wildlife officials did their best Tuesday to convince a few more.

"I know how much of a risk it is for private landowners to get involved with the feds on something like this," said Ren Lohoefener, Pacific Region director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "I hope you'll trust us and work with us to make sure this is something that works for you going forward."

Tom and Mike Heer, two brothers who grow wheat in the area, said they had a good feeling about the program overall but would review it more before signing up.

"We've always approached any kind of documentation that we sign with an agency with trepidation. Just call that experience talking," said Tom Heer, who has never seen a pygmy rabbit. "I recognize that they need to conserve the species. Yeah, it's a little bit more of a hassle for us because we're at ground zero, but that's OK."

Another landowner who signed up for the program isn't a farmer. Peter Lancaster bought 900 acres nearby in an attempt to save a colony of pygmy rabbits 10 years ago. They died.

"All they need is sagebrush and deep soil to tunnel into. If they can't have that, what else is going to survive there?" Lancaster said. "They're an indicator species about this shrub-steppe habitat, and I think it's really important to try to save them."

Pygmy rabbits have a high mortality rate _ 50 percent or greater _ because they are easy prey for predators, but they can give birth to between one and three litters each spring. Wildlife biologists are hoping the rabbits that are reintroduced this coming spring will allow the species to rebound.

For his part, Billingsley hopes the agreement will foster communication between farmers and state and federal wildlife officials in the future if and when endangered species' issues arise.

"We do care about wildlife," he said. "And we want this to work so we have a track record for the next thing that comes along."

Source: Associated Press

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