Salazar Strikes Again, Denying Meaningful Protection for Imperiled Tiny Bunny of the Sagebrush Sea
The declining condition of the Sagebrush Sea has been highlighted on a couple of occasions over the past couple of weeks. In recent Washington state news we learned that jackrabbits in sagebrush habitats are diminishing. Pygmy rabbits were rejected ESA protections by the Obama administration last week, and earlier last year Dr. Steven Herman remorsefully described his account of the extinction of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit:
Science is seldom followed in these endangered species “interventions”. Politics trumps science -and conservation.
We need to remember the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit as an example of a form lost in part to the the insanity of Public Grazing.
The Sagebrush Sea is Dying
Significant threats to sagebrush habitat across the western landscape continue to threaten and diminish a variety of sagebrush obligate species.
Sagebrush habitat is among the most imperiled ecosystems in North America and the rate at which our unique western wildlife and fish communities are declining is truly alarming.
Attempting to bring the most relief in the least amount of time, environmentalists continue to push for Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for a number of umbrella species endemic to sagebrush habitats, including the grand-master of the Sagebrush Sea: the Greater Sage grouse.
Prioritizing these “umbrella” species is important, because when successfully listed, the protections secured these species will blanket entire ecosystems positively affecting the diversity of fish, wildlife, and environmental values which share the explicitly protected individuals’ habitat. It’s like hitting a plethora of birds with one stone (bad analogy).
Pygmy Rabbits’ Race to Recovery
So it is with the charismatic, imperiled pygmy rabbit, North America’s tinniest bunny, and the only arboreal rabbit (climbs sagebrush) on Earth !
In 2003, a coalition of conservation groups petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list pygmy rabbits under the ESA.
In early 2008, the USFWS, responding to legal pressure from conservation groups, finally issued a positive 90-day finding for pygmy rabbits, initiating a more thorough assessment of whether to protect the bunny under the ESA.
The agency dragged its feet again, prompting Western Watersheds Project et al to provide a legal reminder, again, of its court ordered obligation to the bunny …
Unfortunately, just earlier this week Pygmy rabbits were denied Endangered Species Act protections by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Laura Zuckerman, Reuters
“We find there has been some loss and degradation of pygmy rabbit habitat range-wide, but not to the magnitude that constitutes a significant threat to the species,” Bob Williams, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada, said in a statement.
This statement from Bob Williams turns out to be less than entirely accurate. The USFWS determined that there is insufficient data on pygmy rabbits’ populations across its range to determine that the species is sufficiently declining in number to warrant listing. So, because the federal government hasn’t been counting, it doesn’t have solid enough data to determine pygmy rabbit’s are definitively in enough of a perilous decline, thus ~ no protection.
President Obama’s US Fish & Wildlife Service More Concerned with Protecting Big Business than Endangered Species & Ecosystems
With this ESA decision (added to the pile) there can be little doubt that Obama’s administration of western wildlife and lands continues the previous Bush Administration’s ESA policy direction of keeping species off of the Endangered Species List not by promoting their recovery and well-being via targeted protection of umbrella species, but with an under-funded, stalled administration of the Endangered Species Act:
To date, the Obama administration has not substantially increased the pace of species listings by the Fish and Wildlife Service. It did finalize protection for 51 species from Hawaii, but in the conterminous United States has only finalized protection for one plant and only proposed protection for 15 species, including the three mollusks.
This means there will be few listings finalized in the remainder of the administration. Under the Clinton administration, by contrast, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed a total of 498 species for a rate of 62 species per year.
Obama’s Interior has failed in more way than one and it’s not just an abstract failure of government or a lack of funding that’s resulting in absent enforcement and the lowest rate of listings in the history of the ESA.
Obama is not interested in extending protections to umbrella species which might achieve the most ‘bang for the buck’ and effectuate blanket recovery to imperiled habitat, mitigating the need to undergo the bureaucratic process of considering listing to a great many species.
Instead, its clear that the administration calculates and extends ESA protections to only those species that promise to minimize economic impact and political controversy. Obama’s got a knack for kicking anything politically controversial to the courts.
The Obama administration’s listing decisions always cut the same way, representing what amounts to exclusive benefits extended to big business interests at the expense of wild places, the public interest, and those faint and voiceless wildlife communities on the precipice of being extinguished from our world forever.
Not good for the Sagebrush Sea and those plant and wildlife communities that depend on it, and not an efficient administration of the ESA that promotes the actual recovery of the landscape necessary to prevent the necessity for future listings.
Sagebrush Habitat Degradation & Pygmy Rabbits
Pygmy rabbits rely entirely on intact sagebrush habitat for survival. Because the rabbit is one of only two bunnies to live in burrows, the rabbit needs deep, soft soils under sagebrush in order to dig their homes.
Unfortunately for the pygmy rabbit, there’s a lot of anthropogenic (human-caused) degradation going on to it’s habitat (burning, chaining, blading, herbiciding, discing, roads, fences, development, etc.) at tax-payers’ expense.
Once, agencies were up front about the fact that burning, discing, chaining, herbiciding, and other landscape-scale habitat manipulations were done to wipe out sagebrush habitat to provide a ‘clean slate’ to plant non-native grasses and other forage plants for livestock.
Now, the very same projects continue, but their official justifications have changed, ironically taking place under the auspice of “habitat improvement” and “restoration”.
Unfortunately, the only thing that the tax-dollars spent to lay waste these public landscapes “restored” is the bankroll of private welfare ranchers along with other industries.
Millions of acres of sage-steppe have been denuded, fragmented, and otherwise chopped up and destroyed to facilitate the conversion of the Sagebrush Sea into what amounts to agricultural lands administered to maximize production of livestock.
Other commercial interests have similarly benefited from Obama’s policy objectives, ensuring lax enforcement and industry friendly interpretation of regulation with the objective of sidestepping existing environmental regulations to provide streamlined opportunities for Wind, Oil, Gas, and other monied interests.
Pygmy Rabbit Habitat Fragmentation
photos: Katie Fite
Highlighting the absurdity of the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s claim that pygmy rabbit’s habitat (Sagebrush Sea) is not threatened enough to warrant listing, is the fact that another species more numerous in population endemic to the Sagebrush Sea was recently found to be scientifically warranted (but precluded) for protection under the Endangered Species Act due to significant threats to its habitat (Sagebrush Sea). What’s threatening enough to warrant listing for the more numerous grouse apparently isn’t threatening enough to warrant protections for the less numerous and more fragmented populations of pygmy rabbit.
Unfortunately, with its “warranted, but precluded” finding for sage grouse, and its “not warranted” finding for pygmy rabbits, sagebrush habitats and their inhabitants across the west continue to diminish.