The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must reconsider the pygmy rabbit for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, an Idaho judge has ruled. If the rascally little rabbit is listed, it could spell "twubble" for oil and gas companies that operate in the West.

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge found that FWS officials lacked sufficient scientific evidence to determine whether the rabbit required federal protection. The FWS had ruled in 2004 that the pygmy rabbit did not merit protection. However, several environmental groups, including the Western Watersheds Project and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA), challenged the decision in court.

Pygmy rabbits, which weigh about a pound and are nine inches to a foot long, are found in the Columbia Basin of Washington state and the Columbia Plateau and Great Basin of California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. They are the only rabbits in the United States said to dig their own burrows, and they also are the smallest by weight. In addition, they are dependent upon sagebrush for about 90% of their diet.

Sagebrush habitat has been under pressure from a variety of sources in recent years, including invasive grasses, housing development and oil and natural gas exploration. The sage grouse population also is in decline, and to avoid seeing it listed as a protected species, Wyoming and Colorado are now determining how to allow state development to coexist with the bird (see NGI, Oct. 1; June 25). The Bureau of Land Management in Montana in July put on hold its plans to offer acreage in part of that state because of sage grouse concerns (see NGI, July 23).

"Pygmy rabbits are especially vulnerable to habitat fragmentation from the building of road networks because these animals are too shy to venture out from the cover of sagebrush to cross the road," said BCA's Duane Short. "For this reason, the huge level of oil and gas development targeting sagebrush basins in Wyoming is a major threat to the pygmy rabbit."

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