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National Park will work with advocates, agencies, tribal governments to find 'common solution' regarding rabbits

The National Park Service will work with rabbit advocates, Fish and Wildlife officials and tribal government representatives to "find common goals and a common solution" in managing the rabbit population on the American Camp prairie.

San Juan Island National Historical Park officials said Friday that the park will "take no action to implement the preferred alternative" -- to remove the rabbits by shooting – contained in the environmental assessment of the prairie restoration plan.

"We need to have some open discussion and educate people and rebuild some relationships," said Jerald Weaver, chief of integrated resources at the local national park.

He said the national park will consider some new alternatives for managing the rabbits, but that "limiting their movement across the prairie" will have to be part of the solution.

Weaver said he talked to Lena Tso of the Lummi Nation's Tribal Historic Preservation Office and that while Lummi officials believe the rabbit population must be removed from culturally sensitive areas, "as far as a method, they didn't have an opinion."

Tso was not available for comment Friday, but Historic Preservation Officer James Hillaire said in an earlier interview that the American Camp prairie is a village site. National Park officials say that one of the reasons the rabbits need to be removed from the prairie is that their burrowing disrupts "cultural resources." Park officials also say the rabbits destroy native grasses and plants that provide habitat for sensitive species, among them a butterfly once thought extinct.

“The American Camp prairie is one of the last surviving natural prairies in the Northern Straits and Puget Sound regions,” according to the national park.

Dr. Julie Stein, director of the Burke Museum and author of "Exploring Coast Salish Prehistory: The Archeology of San Juan Island" (University of Washington Press, 2000), said the rabbits, introduced to the island in the 1880s or 1890s, "should have been gone long ago."

"It's like letting carpenter ants take over the pyramids. They are digging everything up," she said.

Stein said the prairie contains a record of human life dating back thousands of years. “I’m very sensitive to the Lummi Nation's efforts to de-emphasize burials and emphasize other great things their ancestors did that were important and valuable there. There’s much more information that's housed there.”

Rabbit advocates, led by the group Save Our Bunnies, say the rabbits are a part of island culture and are an important part of the diet of eagles, foxes and other predators. They particularly blanched at the idea of shooting the rabbits.

On the Save Our Bunnies website, www.saveourbunnies. org, the organization proposes an alternative: Restoring the prairie west of Pickett’s Lane, and fencing off the dunes east of Pickett’s Lane for rabbit habitat. But indigenous remains were found in the dunes in 2004.

The National Park reported receiving 138 comments on its environmental assessment during the comment period.

“The majority of comments expressed support for preserving the prairie landscape at American Camp. However, there was no consensus as to the best method to manage European rabbits and restore the prairie. Numerous concerns relating to the complexity of the restoration effort were brought forward, including comments specific to animal control, preservation of threatened and endangered species such as the rare island marble butterfly and the Federally threatened golden paintbrush, herbicides, hunting, and fencing. Based on this input, the Park will take no action to implement the preferred alternative in this Environmental Assessment.

“Instead, the Park will work with the public and interested stakeholders to identify the best approach and means to restoring/managing the prairie and preserving cultural resources.”

“The National Environmental Policy Act process worked as it is intended,” National Park Superintendent Peter Dederich said in the press release; he was not available for comment Friday.

“The spirit of NEPA calls for active public and interest group participation to inform decision-makers and minimize environmental impacts. Like the community, the Park shares the goal of protecting and restoring the treasured prairie ecosystem, and we remain committed to working with the public to reach this end. We will continue to engage the public on the best means to achieve our joint prairie restoration goals.”

In the near future, the National Park will hold a series of workshops and discussion sessions to engage the public and delineate next steps, the press release states.

More information on the National Park’s prairie restoration goals can be found at: www.nps.gov/sajh/naturescience/prairie-restoration-project.htm. The National Park will post updates to the website.

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