Environmental groups filed a petition on Monday asking federal officials to add North America’s smallest rabbit to the endangered species list.
Pygmy rabbits, which typically weigh less than a pound at full size, are native to a stretch of the sagebrush touching over a half-dozen Western states, including much of southern Wyoming. But their numbers have plummeted in recent years.
New federal protections for the species could have huge ramifications for the oil and gas industry: A Center for Biological Diversity analysis of federal data identified active oil and gas operations on over 40% of the pygmy rabbit’s current Wyoming range and leases spanning another 21%.
In Wyoming, the petition reported, state wildlife surveys identified a 69% drop between 2013 and 2019 — but noted that weather conditions may have affected the accuracy of the data. (The Wyoming Game and Fish Department could not be reached for comment by press time.)
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The groups behind the petition pointed to the compounding effects of habitat loss, livestock grazing, climate change, invasive grasses and energy development to explain the precipitous drop in pygmy rabbit populations throughout the sagebrush ecosystem.
“They appear to be declining and less able to recover because of the continued degradation and fragmentation of the sagebrush steppe,” Miranda Crowell, a pygmy rabbit researcher with the University of Nevada, Reno, who signed on to the petition, said in a statement.
According to the petition — led by Western Watersheds Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife — the rabbit “could be threatened by extinction throughout its range” if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t step in.
“As goes the habitat, as goes the rabbit,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“When an animal or a plant goes extinct, it’s actually a symptom of a much larger problem,” Spivak added. “It signals the unraveling of an ecosystem.”
The pygmy rabbit isn’t the first sagebrush species to flirt with joining the Endangered Species List. Wyoming pulled out all the stops almost a decade ago to keep the greater sage grouse — which has also struggled to adapt to its shrinking, shifting habitat — off the list.
Western Watersheds Project and a handful of other environmental groups last petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to grant the pygmy rabbit Endangered Species Act protections in 2003. The agency announced in 2005 — following a lawsuit — that the petition didn’t provide substantial enough evidence for officials to move forward with a full status review.
Then the petitioners sued again, a court reversed the decision in 2007 and the Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2008 that it would reconsider the species’ status after all.
In 2010, the agency acknowledged some evidence of decline, but deemed listing the species “not warranted at this time.”
The environmental groups behind Monday’s petition believe that things have grown much worse for the pygmy rabbit since then — and that the data available this time around makes a much stronger case.
Federal officials “determined at the time that the rabbit was still persisting in places in its range, and it wasn’t at an immediate threat of extinction,” Spivak said. “Those same things are happening,” she added, “but, like, on steroids now — at such an accelerated rate.”
If the Fish and Wildlife Service finds the groups’ petition credible enough during a 90-day assessment, it’ll initiate a year-long status review and return with a decision about whether listing is, or is not, warranted now.