“We lose more than one million acres of sagebrush every year—habitat that the pygmy rabbit depends on for survival. The Endangered Species Act was made for moments like this; to help focus federal restoration and conservation efforts in the Sagebrush Sea and to give this little rabbit a fighting chance.”
Conservation organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today requesting protection of the pygmy rabbit under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) depend on the sagebrush and grass habitats of the Sagebrush Sea for their survival and are at risk of extinction because of habitat loss and disease. This rabbit has lost considerable habitat due to development, extraction, invasions by non-native grasses, and wildfire.
“We lose more than one million acres of sagebrush every year—habitat that the pygmy rabbit depends on for survival,” said Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife. “The Endangered Species Act was made for moments like this; to help focus federal restoration and conservation efforts in the Sagebrush Sea and to give this little rabbit a fighting chance.”
Weighing from a half pound to just over a pound, pygmy rabbits are the world's smallest rabbit and require intact sagebrush for virtually all of their winter diet and for cover from predators. They also need areas with deep soil for constructing burrows where they shelter from predators and safeguard their babies. The current range of the pygmy rabbit encompasses parts of Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, California, and Oregon.
“Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, pygmy rabbits are one of the most endearing and charismatic creatures of the Sagebrush Sea, but unfortunately they are also one of the most at risk of extinction,” said Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “Our petition demonstrates the serious threats the species is facing throughout its range, and it needs federal protection to ensure its survival into the future.”
The once vast Sagebrush Sea is under stress from fire intensified by invasive plants and climate change as well as development, oil and gas extraction, livestock grazing, and drought. An estimated 1.3 million acres are lost every year, with just 13.6% of the original ecosystem still ecologically intact, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report. Scientists have recommended stronger conservation management for the Sagebrush Sea and identified a network of places that should be prioritized for protection because they are relatively intact or could be restored.
“We’re watching the slow-motion extinction of these tiny, mighty pygmy rabbits right before our eyes,” said Randi Spivak, Public Lands Program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is the biodiversity crisis playing out in real time. The alarm bell for pygmy rabbits has been ringing for a long time, but now the loss of their habitat is accelerating. It’s time to bring the power of the Endangered Species Act to bear and protect the habitat these creatures need to survive.”
Within the past 50 years populations of the once common pygmy rabbits have dwindled, according to state surveys. In Wyoming, the rabbit population has declined by 69%, and Utah has alarmingly low occupancy rates (7%-13%). Occupancy rates average 23% and 22% in Idaho and Nevada, respectively.
“I have studied populations of pygmy rabbits across multiple states over the last seven years and I share concerns of other researchers who have also detected population declines,” said Miranda Crowell, a pygmy rabbit researcher with the University of Nevada, Reno. “They appear to be declining and less able to recover because of the continued degradation and fragmentation of the sagebrush-steppe.”
The pygmy rabbit was first proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1991 and then re-petitioned in 2003. In September 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the rabbits were not warranted for listing. The Service acknowledged the threat to pygmy rabbits from habitat loss and degradation, development, livestock grazing, conversion, and energy development. However, the agency said it did not have enough data to show that these threats rose to the level of extinction risk.
Now new occupancy surveys point to continuing population decline and low occupancy rates. The pace of habitat loss and degradation of the sagebrush habitat upon which the rabbit depends has accelerated to unsustainable levels. Given the rabbit’s high dependency on sagebrush and perennial grasses, increasing loss of sagebrush habitat is a direct threat to the rabbit’s survival. Further, an emerging virus, the Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Serotype 2 or RHDV2, was first detected in pygmy rabbits in 2022 and poses a new serious threat to their survival.
“As a sagebrush specialist, the pygmy rabbit relies on one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America,” said Joe Bushyhead, endangered species attorney with WildEarth Guardians. “Endangered Species Act listing offers the best and perhaps only chance to protect the rabbit’s rapidly vanishing habitat and stop its slide towards extinction.”