SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The hardships facing the pygmy rabbit of the western United States don’t warrant protections under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Wednesday.
The pygmy rabbit is the smallest and one of only two rabbits in North America that creates its own burrows. An adult is from 9 to 12 inches in length and weighs from a half-pound to 1 pound (440 grams).
“We find there has been some loss and degradation of pygmy rabbit habitat range-wide, but not to the magnitude that constitutes a significant threat to the species,” Bob Williams, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada, said in a statement.
A population of pygmy rabbits in eastern Washington was listed as endangered in 2003 after its numbers dwindled. Wednesday’s decision affects the species where it is found in California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.
The pint-sized rabbit may be small, but the stakes are high as such a listing could throw up regulatory hurdles to energy or farming projects that require federal approval or funds.
Environmentalists had petitioned the government to list the population in the seven western states, arguing the sagebrush range they depend on was under assault from ranching and energy activities among other things.
While environmental groups that sought the listing were quick to say the decision means the rabbit will be imperiled to the point of extinction, scientists were more cautious.
“What’s a little bit different about this species in this day and age is that its ecology is not yet understood,” said Janet Rachlow, an expert on pygmy rabbits and a University of Idaho professor specializing in mammal ecology.
Beth Waterbury, a biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game office in Salmon, said of her nine years’ study of the species: “We don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle yet.”
But Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Wyoming, one of the groups that sought the listing, said there is “no question pygmies face severe threats throughout their range.”
Molvar faulted the Obama administration for decisions this year denying immediate protections for sagebrush-dependent species like the pygmy rabbit and sage grouse.
Editing by Ed Stoddard and Peter Bohan