Jackrabbit Mystery in Yellowstone Park

Jackrabbits have all but disappeared from Yellowstone National Park, according to a recently released study. Joel Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society talks to Alex Chadwick about the mysterious absence of the once common animal.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Here is a wild outdoors question: What happened to the jackrabbits? Where did they go, and why hasn't anyone noticed? Jackrabbits are the rangy, sort of grizzly bunnies of the American West. They're common as tumbleweed, or they used to be.

An article in the conservation journal Oryx notes that the white-tailed jackrabbit has disappeared from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming. In all, it's about 20,000 square miles. Joel Berger is the author. He works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and he's a professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. Joel, welcome back to DAY TO DAY. And when did the jackrabbits disappear?

Professor JOEL BERGER (University of Montana): In Grand Teton Park there have been three sightings in the last three-and-a-half decades. Prior to that it seems that they were progressively less abundant but were abundant in and around the 1920s.

In Yellowstone Park, records from the 1870s indicate that they were widespread, diminishing to a tiny, tiny corner of the park currently.

CHADWICK: So why have they disappeared. Do you know?

Prof. BERGER: Nobody seems to know why; the difficulty, of course, first knowing that they disappeared or have become so reduce, and then secondly it's really hard to recreate the history of a loss.

CHADWICK: So what difference does the presence of jackrabbits make in Yellowstone?

Prof. BERGER: White-tailed jackrabbits, like many other rabbits, play a role because they're food for some of the larger predators, in this case for coyotes. And so when rabbits become so diminished, we know that coyotes turn to other prey species, and in our particular case we know that they've been eating prong-horn fawns and also elk calves.

Prof. BERGER: So baby antelopes and elks, that's what they're going after instead?

Prof. BERGER: More so antelope babies, and there are some data to confirm that they're also eating elk babies. And the reason that this is important is because of course keep in mind with wolves reintroduced, there's been great attention and focus on not only wolves but also grizzly bears, and I think some of the small things that run the world have fallen off the radar.

CHADWICK: Have jackrabbits disappeared from the rest of the American West? I mean, they're incredibly common, I think.

Prof. BERGER: What we're seeing across the West is the sagebrush and grassland systems in jeopardy. Sage grouse have been potentially petitioned for listing for endangered-species status. Pygmy rabbits are a very small and beautiful little bunny, and white-tailed jackrabbits are doing all right in many areas, but in both of these parts they have strikingly reduced ranges.

CHADWICK: Your paper notes their passing from these parks, but then you go on to something that seems just as troubling to you, which is that hardly anyone seemed to notice.

Prof. BERGER: And that's the interesting part, because I think as conservationists and as scientists, you know, we need to look and consider all of the parts of the puzzle and how the system works if we ever want to restore it.

But if something blips off and we don't know about it, then we're going to be remiss in our mission.

CHADWICK: How is it that scientists could miss the disappearance of something like the jackrabbit?

Prof. BERGER: You know, I think we're all blinded, and myself included, and as we focus on species that are bigger than a breadbox, we miss a lot of the important things that help operate and run and are fascinating in our world.

CHADWICK: Joel Berger, he's a field biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and a professor at the University of Montana. Joel, thank you.

Prof. BERGER: It's a pleasure as always, Alex.

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