Deadline today for public comment regarding American Camp prairie rabbit removal

Opponents of a plan to remove rabbits from the American Camp prairie protest Aug. 11 on the corner of Mullis and Market streets, near the National Park Service offices. Aug. 12 is the deadline for public comment regarding the plan. - Richard Walker
Opponents of a plan to remove rabbits from the American Camp prairie protest Aug. 11 on the corner of Mullis and Market streets, near the National Park Service offices. Aug. 12 is the deadline for public comment regarding the plan.
— image credit: Richard Walker

The deadline is today for public comment to be submitted regarding the proposed removal of rabbits from the American Camp prairie.

To submit comments, visit the National Park's Planning, Environment and Public Comment website or send by mail to Superintendent, San Juan Island NHP, P.O. Box 429, Friday Harbor, WA 98250.

To view and download the environmental assessment, visit the Planning, Environment and Public Comment website.

Jerald Weaver, chief of integrated resources at San Juan Island National Historical Park, said the National Park had received 71 comments by Thursday.

The National Park Service says the rabbits, introduced to the island between 1875 and 1895, prevent native grasses from flourishing on the prairie, which in turn destroys habitat for sensitive species such as the Island Marble butterfly. The butterfly was believed to have been extinct until its re-discovery on the prairie in 1998. The butterfly has disappeared from Canada's Gulf Islands, its habitat destroyed by grazing.

National Park officials say rabbit burrowing and warrens also threaten cultural resources like the redoubt, a fortification built by U.S. troops during the joint military occupation of 1859-1872.

Opponents of the rabbit removal plan say the rabbits' removal will disturb the ecosystem that is in place now, and would remove a food source for eagles and foxes.

One proposal is to eliminate the rabbits by shooting; that has been most alarming to rabbit fans. Another proposal is to continue the current course of management — fences — which the National Park says inhibits work to restore the prairie and protect habitat for sensitive species.

Sandi Ackerman of Rabbit Meadows Feral Rabbit Sanctuary in Seattle proposed another option of rabbit removal. She said the American Camp rabbits could be trapped, neutered and released back into the wild; or trapped, neutered and relocated to the sanctuary. She said a neutered rabbit population would die off naturally within a couple of years. "It's a humane option," she said.

Others point out that the rabbits are only to be pushed off the prairie; they will still exist outside the prairie boundaries, like Eagle Cove.

Richard Weisbrod, a retired professor at U.W.'s College of Forest Resources, is listed as co-author of "The Rabbits of San Juan Island National Historical Park," published by the National Park in the mid-1970s. Weisbrod said his graduate student and co-author, W. Frederick Stevens, was the primary author. Janet Thomas held the book up at a July 27 public meeting and made note of the section titled "The Art of Rabbit Watching."

Weisbrod believes native grasses and rabbits can co-exist. "Native grasses have had lots of different herbivores feeding on them — deer, squirrels, mice, rabbits. They are adapted as grasses to tolerate pretty heavy predation. Oak trees don't do that, pines and firs don't do that either, but grasses do."

Weisbrod agrees that rabbits have altered the landscape. "But have they altered the landscape any more than people have altered the landscape? They have been here long enough to be part of that ecological system. It's not a wise idea to try to eliminate them. The National Park can manage them where they occur by fencing off the sensitive areas."

Only 3 percent of prairies remain
Prairies are increasingly rare in Western Washington. All told, the American Camp prairie is about 600 acres, almost the same size as Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve in Littlerock. Mima Mounds is managed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

Hannah Anderson, who coordinates the recovery of rare species for the Nature Conservancy, said "not more than 3 percent of the historic extent" of Washington's prairies exist today, gone to make way for agriculture and development.

Anderson said prairies are important because they are home to rare and declining species, including animals, insects and plants that only live on prairies. Prairie grasses help sustain some of the world's oxygen. "There's a huge biomass in grasses," she said

"Each prairie is its own special system. When we have so little left, we have to conserve what remains."

Rabbit population in decline
The rabbit population is at its lowest since 1985, according to National Park rabbit population counts. The population in winter 1973 was estimated at 8,400 on 827.8 acres of prime habitat, and 1,700 on 415.1 acres at American Camp. The population in spring 2005 was estimated at 1,818 on 173 acres of prime habitat at American Camp. University of Washington's College of Forest Resources estimated the population on those 173 acres as between 95 and 330 in 2009 and 414-884 this year.

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