Here is the WWP news release sent out today (3/3/05) announcing a court settlement of legal action to protect the endangered pygmy rabbit. The litigation was brought by Western Watersheds Project, Oregon Natural Desert Association, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and the Center For Native Ecosystems. The groups were ably represented by attorney Todd Tucci of the Boise office of Advocates For The West.
The highly imperiled pygmy rabbit is one step closer to protection after a settlement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a coalition of citizen groups became final yesterday. Because of widespread declines and a growing risk of extinction, the citizen coalition a formal petition seeking protection for the pygmy rabbit under the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which had refused even to review the petition, agreed to make a preliminary finding on the petition by May 16, 2005.
Approved by Idaho Federal Court Judge B. Linn Winmill on March 2, the settlement requires the FWS to provide a 90 finding by May 16, 2005 on whether the groups' petition to list the tiny rabbit has sufficient information to warrant the completion of a twelve month status review and finding whether the pygmy rabbit should be listed or not under the ESA. The settlement also requires that the 12-month finding, if carried out, must be published in the federal register by February 16, 2006.
The pygmy rabbit, weighing only one pound, is the smallest rabbit in North America. Once occurring across the sagebrush sea landscapes of 8 western states, it has vanished from vast areas of its former range, and is now reduced to only small pockets of habitat in isolated areas. The pygmy rabbit faces a battery of threats including habitat damage from livestock grazing, off road vehicles and oil and gas development on public lands.
The tiny rabbit requires dense sagebrush cover, loose-textured soils where it digs its own burrows, and healthy native grass understories. The pygmy rabbit relies solely on sagebrush for food in winter, and has more exacting habitat requirements than the keystone species of the sagebrush sea, the sage grouse.
Katie Fite of Western Watersheds Project noted: "Livestock grazing harms all components of pygmy rabbit habitat. Cattle trampling collapses the pygmy rabbit burrows, breaks down the protective overhead cover of sagebrush plants, and depletes native grasses opening the area to weed invasions."
"The entire Sagebrush Sea is in trouble", stated Jacob Smith of the Center for Native Ecosystems, "and protecting the pygmy rabbit will help us protect this entire ecosystem."
Todd Tucci of Advocates For The West's Boise office, lead attorney for the groups stated: "We are pleased that the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally agreed to comply with the law. Now we will be watching the Service very closely to insure that they employ science, and not politics, in determining whether the pygmy rabbit needs protection under the ESA."