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Big Fight Over a Pygmy Rabbit

POCATELLO, Idaho (CN) - Weighing less than 1 pound and smaller than 1 foot long, the Pygmy rabbit is the focus of a grudge match between environmentalists and Uncle Sam, in a fight that may determine its future - and whether it has a future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says North America's smallest rabbit does not deserve endangered species status.

The Western Watersheds Project disagrees. It claims Fish and Wildlife violated the Endangered Species Act, changed its testing protocol, "cherry-picked" its science, downplayed some threats to the rabbit and ignored others to reject it for protection.

Western Watersheds asked the Federal Court to overturn Fish and Wildlife's ruling and order the government to "proceed expeditiously with the ESA listing process for Pygmy rabbit."

Fish and Wildlife's September 2010 ruling was the latest in a string that refused to list the species as endangered, leading to the fourth lawsuit that Western Watersheds has filed on behalf of the bunny in the past 7 years.

The fight began in 2003, when Western Watersheds submitted a petition asking Fish and Wildlife to protect the rabbit as endangered or threatened.

"Western Watersheds' Listing Petition contained 216 pages of scientifically based information about the pygmy rabbit, along with explanatory attachments," according to the latest complaint. "The petition detailed the reasons for listing pygmy rabbit under the ESA's listing factors; described past and present numbers and distribution of the pygmy rabbit; articulated the extensive threats to the species in its present range; and described the current status of the species over a significant portion of its range. Western Watersheds' listing petition presented the best scientific and commercial data available, demonstrating that the pygmy rabbit may be endangered or threatened, and cited over 400 scientific articles, bibliographic references, and other documentation reinforcing the petition's information."

Fish and Wildlife did not respond within the timeline require by the Endangered Species Act, so Western Watersheds filed its first lawsuit on Aug. 31, 2004. Fish and Wildlife settled that complaint by agreeing to publish a 90-day finding. The finding concluded that "Western Watersheds' listing petition failed to provide substantial scientific or commercial information to demonstrate that listing Pygmy rabbit under the ESA may be warranted."

Western Watersheds sued again, and the court found Fish and Wildlife's 90-day finding "arbitrary and capricious," and "reversed and remanded the decision back to the Service, and ordered a new decision within 90 days," according to the new complaint.

Western Watersheds waited for 2 years, then sued again in February 2010. Fish and Wildlife finally published its finding on Sept. 30, 2010, and again denied the Pygmy rabbit endangered or threatened status.

"In its 2010 listing rule, the Service concluded that the pygmy rabbit did not qualify as an endangered or threatened species because, according to the Service, the threats to Pygmy rabbit populations through habitat conversion, sagebrush treatments and eradication, livestock grazing, invasive plants, fire, and energy exploration and development, and habitat fragmentation only impact 'a handful of specific areas ... in occupied pygmy rabbit habitat,' and are not widespread across the range of pygmy rabbit," according to the new complaint.

Booshwah, Western Watersheds says. It says the "best available scientific evidence undermines this claim."

The Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) lives in sage-steppe habitats, using tall, dense sagebrush for cover and food. Its range spreads from the Great Basin to the intermountain regions of the United States, including parts of California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Washington and Wyoming.

Western Watersheds is represented by staff attorney Todd Tucci.

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