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Can America’s West stay wild?

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Historically, management of these lands by state and federal agencies has favored resource extractors far more than conservationists would like. But as western economies change and demographics shift, this emphasis on extraction makes less and less sense, economists say.

Meanwhile, attempts to reintroduce captive-bred pygmy rabbits into the wild have so far failed. Of 20 freed in 2007, predators killed 18. Scientists returned the remaining two to captivity. With genetic diversity low, in 2005 scientists added Idaho pygmy rabbits, a close relative. The hybrid offspring were more robust. But in 2006, the last purebred male rabbit died. In coming years, scientists plan to attempt reintroduction of the hybrid rabbit, three-quarters native, again. But the pure Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit is now genetically extinct.

Did cattle push the rabbits over the edge?
Steve Herman, a biologist emeritus at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., says cattle may have pushed the animals over the edge. At the site, scientists observed trampled rabbit burrows and broken sagebrush, which the rabbit needs for both food and protection from predators. When cows were finally removed, “it was too late,” he says. “We’ve lost a life form, and it’s likely that our species [is] responsible.”

Matthew Monda, the Washington (State) Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) wildlife program director for Region 2, counters that although observers had noted trampled burrows and the rabbits were in obvious decline, there was no decisive evidence that grazing was responsible. In fact, he adds, since cows and rabbits had coexisted for perhaps 100 years to that point, some worried that removing cows might make things worse. WDFW initiated a study to determine “if the grazing that occurred on the area was good, bad, or ugly.” But when the rabbit populations declined precipitously, the study was halted and the cows removed.

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