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Red tape may strangle cottontail rabbits

Activists sued last week to force authorities to do more to save a dwindling Northeastern species.

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As champion for all things small, furry, and few, David Wade isn't shy about going to bat for bunnies. Which is why he filed a lawsuit last week to have the New England cottontail declared an endangered species.

Rabbits, which typically proliferate like, well, themselves, aren't too often on this end of the stick. But the New England cottontail is being decimated as fast-growing suburbs cut into its scrubby habitat and other more aggressive, invasive rabbit species combine to crowd them out.

Scientists have known that the New England cottontail – the only cottontail native to the region – was in sad shape since the early 1990s. Several groups, including Mr. Wade, petitioned for the rabbit's protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in August 2000.

But after nearly six years of waiting for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision, the cottontail just can't wait any longer, several experts say.

"This rabbit is pretty much a slam-dunk case," says Wade, founder of the Endangered Small Animal Conservation Fund, a nonprofit conservation foundation in Monmouth, Ill. "There's really no dispute about this. If we wait any longer, it may go extinct."

The population has fallen by more than 75 percent over the past 40 years, estimates John Litvaitis, a University of New Hampshire biologist who has studied the species. Some experts say fewer than 2,500 of the cottontails survive across the six New England states.

"There are so few of these animals left we needed to act," says Zibby Wilder, a spokeswoman for the Animal Protection Institute, an activist group based in Sacramento, Calif., that sued with Wade in federal court to try to force action. "The Fish and Wildlife Service has been dragging its feet, and someone needed to do something."

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