American Camp rabbits' days are numbered; public meeting on eradication plan July 27

A red fox hunts on the American Camp prairie, near Pickett
A red fox hunts on the American Camp prairie, near Pickett's Lane. The rabbit population is scheduled to be eradicated. National Park officials don't expect that to affect the red foxes, which feed mostly on mice and voles.
— image credit: Richard Walker

The American Camp rabbits' days are numbered.

The National Park Service released for public comment Thursday an environmental assessment that proposes to control the population of non-native European rabbits at San Juan Island National Historical Park’s American Camp.

Shooting is considered one of the most effective techniques for rabbit removal and is the primary method recommended in the feasibility study conducted for the park in 2006 by Island

Conservation, a non-profit that specializes in removing invasive species from islands.

The plan is one big step in the restoration of the prairie, which is home to numerous native plant and animal species, some of them sensitive or endangered. Park Superintendent Peter Dederich said restoration of the prairie will take about 50 years.

“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,” Dederich said in a press release. “It also will afford us the opportunity to mitigate past damage caused by the rabbits.”

A formal 30-day public review and comment period for the environmental assessment is from July 8 to Aug. 12. A public meeting is scheduled from July 27, 1-3 p.m., at Mullis Community Senior Center in Friday Harbor.

European rabbits were introduced to the island between 1875 and 1895, presumably as a food source. Not surprisingly, their population spread quickly. They were hunted in the mid-20th century; The Oaks neighborhood is located on the site of a former rabbit-hunting camp. Rabbit hunting on San Juan Island was the subject of a feature story in the Sept. 28, 1964 edition of Sports Illustrated.

To many islanders and visitors, the rabbits became part of local lore as well as the local landscape. But to farmers and preservationists, the rabbits became a pest. According to the National Park, the rabbits — through their burrowing and their diet — destroy wildlife habitat, damage native plant communities, and confound efforts to restore native species. Their burrowing also damages important cultural resources and displaces artifacts the park was established to protect, park officials say.

More than 470 non-native rabbits inhabit about 150 acres of American Camp today, down from an estimated high of 50 rabbits per acre in the 1970s and about 23 rabbits per acre in 2005, Dederich said. 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,” 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.”

Jerald Weaver, the local national park's chief of integrated resources, said the rabbits' removal is not expected to impact the bald eagle and red fox populations. According to a National Park study, the local bald eagles feed mostly on carrion, fish, marine invertebrates, shorebirds, small mammals, waterbirds and waterfowl. The foxes eat mostly mice and voles.

Weaver said the foxes, which were introduced to the island to control the rabbit population, are not targeted for removal and will continue to live on the prairie.

Preliminary "scoping" comments for rabbit control were solicited from the public in February and March 2009. Individuals or organizations wishing to provide written comments may submit them one of three ways: electronically on the Planning, Environment and Public Comment website, in person at the public meeting, or by mail no later than Aug. 10 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.

It's not uncommon for non-native animals to be removed from an area to preserve native animals and plants.

Island Conservation removed rats from Farallón de San Ignacio and San Pedro Martir islands in Mexico to protect nesting seabirds and fishing bats. On Mexico's Clarion Island, Island Conservation removed feral pigs and sheep, and discovered a new nesting population of wedge-tailed puffins.

Island Conservation removed feral rabbits to protect native vegetation and birds on Hawaii's Lehua Island. Island Conservation is partnering with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and The Nature Conservancy to remove rats from the Aleutian islands.

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