The idea is heresy to some and it sounds odd coming from a wildlife biologist, but Fred Dobler is insistent: Cattle grazing might save the pygmy rabbit. The shy, nocturnal cousin of the cottontail is an endangered species in Washington and exists on isolated chunks of sagebrush-shrub steppe in just one county.
"Grazing might be a tool to achieve the
development of the habitat," Dobler says, "though we don't yet have
the data to prove that."
The biologist for the
state Department of Fish and Wildlife has put himself on a
political tightrope - between anti-grazing environmentalists who
question his theory, and ranchers suspicious of his intentions. He
wants to settle the question of grazing on pygmy rabbit habitat by
way of experiment - letting a rancher continue grazing cows on
portions of a 3,600-acre piece of state-owned steppe called
Sagebrush Flat. Meanwhile, researchers would observe one of North
America's rarest small mammals.
At stake is the
flat's ecosystem in eastern Washington's Douglas County, a rare
fragment of deep-soil sagebrush steppe that has never been plowed.
The flat hosts the state's largest pygmy rabbit population in a
network of 134 burrows. But the animals - which grow to just 10
inches long and weigh no more than a pound - are difficult to
observe, and scientists don't know the ratio of rabbits to each
burrow. They speculate that dozens co-exist there at least three
months a year with up to 150 head of cattle.
the rabbits have survived on isolated habitat puzzles scientists.
Dobler believes grazing may be part of the answer. By eating the
grasses, the cows give sagebrush a competitive advantage. Thick
sagebrush provides both food and concealment for the rabbits. But
he admits, "We have conclusions from basic observations, not
Only a handful of people in
the country can identify a pygmy rabbit on sight. The tiny mammals
are active at night and live exclusively in deep soils covered with
sagebrush. Though still found in eight Western states, scientists
believe the animals have never been
Until 1987, the rabbits were believed
gone from Washington, where most shrub and grass steppe has been
plowed or grazed. The original steppe ecosystem existed in only
isolated pieces, except for large tracts within the Hanford Nuclear
Reservation and the Army's Yakima Firing Range.
After a biologist spotted a pygmy rabbit in
Douglas County, surveys in 1988 found five colonies there. None
have been found elsewhere in Washington, and the state soon
thereafter declared the rabbit
Dobler's experiment is embedded in a new -
and controversial - five-year management plan for the Sagebrush
Flats approved by a state-appointed committee in February. It
enrages some environmentalists because it promotes the idea that
grazing can benefit wildlife.
The most vocal
critic has been Steve Herman, a naturalist and professor of
mammalogy at Washington's Evergreen State College. He says Dobler's
thesis lacks proof; he charges that Western rangelands are filled
with evidence that grazing destroys native plants and wildlife.
Sagebrush Flat has been partly spoiled by a
century of grazing, Herman says. Non-native invasive weeds like
cheat grass now thrive in sections trampled by cows, and they
compromise the survival of wildlife such as sage grouse and native
plants from bluebunch wheatgrass to steppe
"The state views (the flat) mainly as
a pygmy rabbit site," he says, "when they should be viewing it as a
whole community." Allowing grazing on the flat, he adds, "is like
putting cows on the roof of the Sistine Chapel - unmitigated
Dobler says he has worked with Herman
on efforts to save the peregrine falcon, and his daily routine puts
him in contact with people whose opinions vary widely. "Tempers and
guns," he says, "are loaded on both sides." But he hopes the
research results will settle the controversy in five years, when
the committee will review the plan and decide on its future. Dobler
says he aims for a model that stresses cooperation between clashing
David Billingsley, who owns the
Sagebrush Flat grazing rights, has a good relationship with state
officials. "This (plan) is a beautiful opportunity," he says, "for
ranchers to show (government) agencies we are not all out here
raping the land."
Much of the pressure
surrounding the project will be felt by the committee set up to
monitor it. It includes Dobler, Billingsley, a representative from
the Washington state Cattlemen's Association, a Department of
Natural Resources range manager, a federal soils expert, an Audubon
Society member and a university professor.
all have to worry," says member Tom Thomas, a University of
Washington business professor and authority on environmental
policy. "We (the committee members) are going to put our names on
something that is going to get us all in trouble."
Thomas and Billingsley, who sit beside each
other at the bargaining table, have struck up a friendly
relationship. "He's reasonable," Billingsley says. "I can work with
him." But Thomas, wanting to maintain his impartiality, has
declined the rancher's invitation to tour the ranch.
For more information, contact Fred Dobler,
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 1550 Alder St., NW,
Ephrata, WA (509/754-4624).
* Peter Chilson
The writer works out of