The pygmy rabbit, North America's smallest rabbit species, was denied on Wednesday protection under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The decision was based on a lack of evidence pointing to a large decline over time, said Bob Williams, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We have really limited information about the species," he said.
Williams said the sagebrush habitat in which the tiny rabbits can be found is clearly shrinking, but specific numerical data regarding the rabbit population is still missing.
However, he did not rule out the possibility of a future listing.
"If we looked at the species again in five years and we haven't reversed the trends that are currently occurring ... we might make a different finding for the species," he said.
The petition to list pygmy rabbits was first filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003 by several conservation groups, including Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project.
Jon Marvel, the organization's executive director, called the service's decision a symptom of its "reactive approach" to wildlife management.
"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the various state departments really need to initiate research before listing petitions are filed," Marvel said. "It makes it easier for them to deny a petition when they have not bothered to gather the information."
Marvel said the project has several options in attempting to change the service's decision. One option is to file another petition for listing once more information is available, but litigation could provide a more immediate challenge to the service's decision.
"It's just a shame that we end up having to fight in court over these matters when the Fish and Wildlife Service has an obligation to protect native wildlife," Marvel said.
He said a decision as to which route, if any, the conservation group will follow has yet to be determined.
A different subspecies of pygmy rabbit found in central Washington is already listed under the ESA. Locally, the rabbits can be found near the Magic and Mormon reservoirs and in the upper Big Lost River valley. The Wood River Land Trust, a Hailey-based nonprofit, recently acquired 1,609 acres of sagebrush habitat west of Arco to provide pygmy rabbit habitat.
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Road to the decision
The pygmy rabbit has been considered for listing since 2003, when Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project and several other conservation groups filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service rejected the petition, but this decision was challenged in 2006. The service eventually agreed to a status review of the species, the second step towards listing, in January 2008. The review normally leads to one of three decisions: that the data warrant listing, that the data support listing but other species are of higher priority or that the data do not yet warrant listing. The decision regarding the pygmy rabbit was the last of those options.