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European Rabbits Facing Death Sentence at San Juan Island National Historical Park


San Juan Island National Historical Park officials have a rabbit problem on their hands. NPS photo.

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.


Any idea what's going to be done with the meat? I hope they find a way of donating it instead of wasting.

I agree with RangerLady. The rabbit meat should be donated to the nearest food pantry, soup kitchen, or other similar local organization. There should be year-round open season on all damaging invasive species. Many of them are edible, so hunters can eat their outlaw species catch, or donate it.--Savona, NY

Help us fight this. It's inhumane and ridiculous to kill off a 130-year-old self-sustaining population for the sake of grasses that haven't been there for hundreds of years. The foxes are starving and the eagles are leaving since the rabbits were gassed in April 2010. There are hundreds remaining. We propose a rabbit-proof fence to keep the rabbits off the areas the park wishes to replant in "native" grass. Go to to read more and sign our petition. Or find us on facebook: S.O.B. (Save Our Bunnies) This one is a no-brainer. Kinda like Elmer.

I and several other rabbit enthusiasts will gladly provide housing for up to 40 of the San Juan Rabbits to preserve the strain/breed. We live in the interior , Iowa and MI.

Food for thought, this is a better way to preserve them then on federal land. We can drive up and bring back a base population to establish breeding lines from.

Jake Levi
Luzerne, MI
[email protected]

This is an old issue. The general public does not understand issues at hand because they are not involved directly. Saving peter Cottontail sounds all fine and good, however that could be what early pioneers to Australia thought. You do know about what happened to Australia don't you? Just for fun if you think rabbits can't burrow through an island and destroy it, try letting your pet rabbit loose in the yard for a month, see what they get up to. On the flip side of that same coin we have other examples how what can happen when eradication is not doesn't with forethought. The Enbery island rabbits have been fighting extinction for quite some time because there was no forethought in their being eradicated from the islands. What we have here is the only group of European wild rabbits off the European continent. They are also the second oldest feral group to remain on a rabbit island since Roman times. They are the ONLY group to be the same rabbits the Romans used in this type of rabbit management that eventually led to all the domestic breeds we know today. Should they be reduced or removed. Absolutely, should they be placed in the hands of knowledgeable rabbit breeders where they can eventually hold ARBA breed status and maintain this wonderful history. Absolutely, the world would be less with out them. Once something like this is gone, you can't get it back.
I do think those who have no clue as to the damage a rabbit can do need to get some knowledgeable before causing so much trouble for those actually trying to find a solution.

I remember as a kid going rabbit hunting at night up there with long handled fish nets. The problem could be turned into a tourest happening. Come to the San Juan Rabbit Festival have a contest for best rabbit recipe. Make a book out of the recipes to help schools and such on the island. Have a rabbit hunt with nets. Prize for biggest rabbit limit the take on the number of entrants.

yes take care of the problem,, and make money,,hunting meat and community income  charity hunts,, tourist promotions just manage well- use your brain and not and not poor poor wrabbits no kill by un relealistic people.

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