Cat Urbigkit: Endangered Species Protection For Pygmy Rabbits & Bumblebees In Wyoming?

Columnist Cat Urbigkit writes: The feds have determined that two species that inhabit Wyoming -- the pygmy rabbit and the Southern Plains bumble bee -- may need to be granted protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Cat Urbigkit

January 30, 20245 min read

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The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced last week that it will has completed its 90-day findings on petitions to list 10 species under the Endangered Species Act. Of the 10 species considered, the agency has determined that petitions for two species that inhabit Wyoming contain substantial information that listing may be warranted, and status reviews will now be initiated on these species, including the pygmy rabbit and the Southern Plains bumble bee.

Pygmy rabbit – A small rabbit that lives in a sagebrush habitat. It is found in the Great Basin and adjacent intermountain areas of the western United States, from southeastern Oregon and southern Idaho to southwestern Montana and south-central Wyoming to northwestern Colorado and southwestern Utah, central Nevada, and eastern California.

The petition to list the pygmy rabbit was filed by Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and Defenders of Wildlife, and also requested that critical habitat be designated for this species. 

FWS noted that the petition provides specific examples of declines in population or occupancy rates in response to habitat loss in Oregon, Wyoming, and California.

The agency reported: “The petition presents pygmy rabbit survey data from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) collected in 2013 and 2019 in the southwestern part of the state in predicted pygmy rabbit habitat. In 2013, the occupancy rate was 42 percent. Six years later, surveys that revisited some of the same sites as the 2013 surveys recorded only a 15 percent occupancy rate. However, the survey results may have been confounded by heavy snow cover during the 2019 survey period.”

Although FWS was petitioned to list pygmy rabbits for federal protection in 2010, at that time the agency determined that such a listing was not warranted. Last week’s decision overturns that finding: “We reviewed the information provided by the petitioners in the March 2023 petition and have determined they have provided substantial scientific or commercial information that listing the species may be warranted.”

“Because we have found that the petition presented substantial information that one or more threats are having an impact on the species to the point that the species’ status may have changed, the petition presents substantial information indicating that the species may warrant listing,” FWS determined. “The petition provided documentation of negative impacts to individual pygmy rabbit populations and the species as a whole due to this potential threat such that the species may warrant listing. The petitioners also presented claims about fire, cheatgrass invasion, climate change, livestock grazing, oil and gas development, and disease as threats to the pygmy rabbit, which we will evaluate during our 12-month finding.”

Southern Plains bumble bee -- A large black and yellow bumble bee identified by its short hair, short head and typically yellow coloring between the head and thorax, between the wings. The species inhabits open prairies, meadows and grasslands of the Midwest, mid-Atlantic states, and the Plains states from Texas to North Dakota, as well as to the grasslands and pine savannas of Florida and the southeast.

This petition was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and requested both that this bumble bee be granted endangered status and that critical habitat be designated by the agency.

In considering the distribution of the species, the petition reported: “There are two new records in Wyoming and based on the proximity of this observation to other historic observations in Nebraska, we consider Wyoming to be within the range of this species.”

The mapped occurrences include only the southeastern corner of Wyoming. Among the varied threats to the species, according to the petition, are “Exploitative Livestock Management Practices” that include livestock grazing, haying, non-native honey bees managed as livestock, and the use of domesticated bumble bees in crop pollination services.

“The petition presents credible information that habitat loss, modification, and fragmentation due to agricultural practices is occurring in the range of the species and within locations where the species is likely to occur. Modern, intensive agriculture practices supporting corn, soy, and wheat production are employed in the range of the Southern Plains bumble bee. These practices include monoculture crop systems in larger fields with narrow or no field margin habitat that bumble bees rely on for food and nesting. Additionally, intensive agricultural practices increasingly rely on inputs of fertilizer and pesticides.”

To ensure that the status reviews are comprehensive, we request scientific and commercial data and other information regarding the species and factors that may affect their status. Based on the status reviews, we will issue 12-month petition findings, which will address whether or not the petitioned actions are warranted in accordance with the Act. 

Although FWS will now undertake its 12-month review for both species, it’s important to note that a positive 90-day petition finding does not indicate that the petitioned action is warranted. FWS reports, “Such a finding indicates only that the petition presents substantial information that the petitioned action may be warranted and that a full review should occur.”

According to a December 2023 report on the Endangered Species Act by the Western Caucus Foundation, in the 50 years since the ESA became law, 1,667 species have been listed as endangered or threatened, but there are 62 officially “recovered” species. Of those, 36 species (nearly 60%) “are not real conservation ‘success stories.’ These ‘recoveries’ are hollow, as they are inaccurate proclamations attributable to an erroneous original determination that the species was endangered or threatened.”

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist