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Big Sky Connection - The pygmy rabbit lives in sagebrush habitat across the West but is under threat. Groups in the region have filed a petition to protect the pygmy rabbit under the Endangered Species Act. Comments from Erik Molvar, executive director, Western Watersheds Project; Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst, Defenders of Wildlife.


Click on the image above for the audio. The pygmy rabbit occupies an estimated 10% of its historic range. (serikbaib/Adobe Stock)

Eric Tegethoff

March 7, 2023 - Advocates have filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to save the smallest rabbit species in North America, the pygmy rabbit. It lives in the so-called Sagebrush Sea of the Intermountain West, which stretches from Oregon to Wyoming. At less than a pound, the rabbit relies on sagebrush to hide from predators and for food.

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project and also a wildlife biologist, said wildlife agencies are neglecting this species.

"There's not a lot of current research that's happening over the last several years because there hasn't been that possibility of endangered species listing looming on the horizon. We're hoping to step up the research and step up the monitoring of pygmy rabbits and learn a lot more about this disappearing species before it's too late," Molvar said.

Groups across the West filed a petition on Monday to list the pygmy rabbit under the Endangered Species Act.

Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst with Defenders of Wildlife, said because the pygmy rabbit relies on sagebrush, a threat to its habitat is a threat to the species, and added wildfires are a growing problem.

"Fire's a natural part of our western habitats and ecosystems, but with climate change fires are becoming bigger and more frequent," she said. "In the past 40 years, we've seen about 26-million acres in the pygmy habitat range burn. That's about 15%."

Smith noted invasive species like cheatgrass also increase the risk from wildfires, and a contagious and deadly virus is threatening pygmy rabbits as well.

Molvar said the species also faces threat from oil and gas development and added protecting sagebrush habitat is key.

"You can't have healthy pygmy rabbit populations without having healthy sagebrush ecosystems," he said.