Can cattle save the pygmy rabbit?

  • Pygmy rabbit may be one of ranching's smallest beneficiaries

    Christopher Garber

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.

How 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 vigorous research."

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 abundant.

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 endangered.

A critical view

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 bluegrass.

"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 insanity."

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 interests.

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.

"We 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).

The writer works out of Seattle, Washington.

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