European Rabbits Facing Death Sentence at San Juan Island National Historical Park
Where's Elmer Fudd when you need him? Although, the folks at San Juan Island National Historical Park, who have a rabbit problem on their hands, could use a hunter who's a little more successful than Bugs Bunny's archenemy ever was.
The problem at this small park (which usually is more connected with pigs, than rabbits, but that's another story) off the coast of Washington state are European rabbits, a non-native breed that, according to park officials, "over the years has turned portions of the American Camp prairie into a moonscape."
According to an environmental assessment the park prepared on a rabbit eradication plan, "European rabbits were first documented on San Juan Island in 1929, but are thought to have been introduced much earlier between 1875 and 1895."
While they provide a food source of a non-native species of fox, the rabbits have few redeeming attributes, according to the park.
European rabbits construct extensive systems of subterranean burrows known as warrens consisting of multiple entrances, tunnels, and chambers. Stevens (1975) measured one warren at American Camp with 92 m (301.8 feet) of subterranean tunnels, and recorded that warrens ranged from 0 to 56 entrances with an average of 9.35 entrances per warren. In 2006, there were 3,440 active burrows at American Camp in the core colony area. One partially collapsed burrow observed by park staff near the dunes in 2009 was nearly three feet in diameter and five feet deep. Excavated tailings from lower soil horizons are piled at entrances to burrows burying the rich prairie topsoil. These extensive systems of warrens also significantly alter the hydrologic regime at American Camp by altering absorption, runoff, retention, and evaporation rates of rainwater, as well as greatly exacerbating soil susceptibility to wind and water erosion.
The rabbits also impact native wildlife, such as western meadowlarks (which like to nest in grasslands), and voles, and are wiping out stands of the hookedspur violet, which is "an important host plant for the valley silverspot butterfly."
“The goal is to eliminate European rabbits from and prevent their recolonization in the park, which will allow us to protect important natural and cultural resources threatened by this non-native species,” said Superintendent Peter Dederich when he released the EA for public comment on July 8. “It also will afford us the opportunity to mitigate past damage caused by the rabbits.”
According to park biologists, more than 470 non-native rabbits inhabit approximately 150 acres of American Camp today—down from an estimated high of 50 rabbits per acre in the 1970s and approximately 23 rabbits per acre in 2005. The long-term effects have been devastating to American camp’s unique prairielands.
“European rabbits exclude native wildlife and destroy wildlife habitat, damage native plant communities, and confound efforts to restore native species,” Superintendent Dederich said. “Through their burrowing, they also damage important cultural resources the park was established to protect. Most recently rabbits re-established warrens in the Redoubt at American Camp, one of the best remaining examples of Civil War-era earthen fortification in the United States.”
While the park reviewed a number of options for dispatching the rabbits, such as fumigation, live trapping, and even dogs, "(S)hooting is generally considered one of the most effective techniques for rabbit removal and is the primary method recommended in the feasibility study conducted for the park by Island Conservation in 2006."
"To minimize potential conflicts with park users during daylight hours, shooting would be carried out primarily during nighttime hours. However, park facilities could be temporarily closed for public safety if control activities are required at dawn or dusk," the EA notes. "All shooting operations would be conducted by trained professionals with experience in shooting for conservation purposes. Trained professionals are defined as individuals that have received training in firearms handling, are skilled in precision shooting, and are considered a marksman. Typically, shooting would be done with a small-caliber rifle, though other firearms could be used depending on circumstances. Lead-free ammunition would be used to eliminate risks to non-target species, such as raptors that may scavenge carcasses, as well as to avoid the general adverse environmental effects of lead."
A 30-day public review and comment period for the EA runs to August 12. An open-house public meeting is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m., on Tuesday, July 27, at the Mullis Senior Center in Friday Harbor, Washington.
To read and comment on the 145-page EA, head to this site. Or you can write the superintendent at San Juan Island NHP, PO Box 429, Friday Harbor, WA 98250.