Wild Rabbits in California

Wild Rabbits in California
While we watch CNN and Fox News, wild rabbits roam free in the California wilderness. Three species currently inhabit the mountains, woodlands, and chaparral areas of the state, but perhaps not for long. So what? Well, the health of their population is linked to the ecological well-being of the state, and to that of the entire Western United States. They may only be large rodents, but they are part of a biologically diverse ecosystem which relies on each part to sort out the whole.

Few people today realize that a difference exists between rabbits and hares. The latter group has larger ears and hind legs than their rabbit kin, and give birth to children called leverets rather than bunnies. In California, Black tailed Jackrabbits (Lepus californicus) range over most of the state; their range extends throughout the Pacific Coast and into the desert areas of the American Southwest and Rocky Mountain states. This breed ekes out its days in grassland, scrubland, and other arid open areas, with a population size that ebbs and flows with the cycle of drought and rain. While these hares are not considered an endangered species at this time, they are dependent on a particular habitat, and human encroachment in the form of housing developments will always be a threat to their existence.

Two true rabbit species live in California. Unlike other cottontails, the Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) digs its own burrow rather than relying on those left by other mammals. Inhabiting sagebrush communities, with a diet that consists almost exclusively of sagebrush), their range extends north into Washington, where they are critically endangered, and east into the Rocky Mountain States. In California, they are only found in a small part of the extreme northeastern mountains, where the human inhabitants are far and few between; this may of course be why they are not considered a threatened population in this state.

By far the most populous rabbit in California is the Brush Rabbit, or Sylvilagus bachmani. These creatures are unique because, while considered part of the cottontail family, this appendage isn’t white but in fact buff colored like the rest of their fur. Their range extends up and down the United States west coast and into Baja California; eastward, they roam as far as the mountains. These rabbits make up part of the chaparral community that covers so much of California, foraging for grass and in turn providing food for coyotes and other large mammals. Different sub-species currently have different population sizes; one of these, Sylvilagus bachmani riparius, or the river brush rabbit is highly endangered, with its current range restricted to Caswell Memorial State Park in Stanislaus County.

Although rabbits are not rodents, most people think of them as such, and give little thought to their well-being. Habitat encroachment threatens most wild animals in the state, including two of the three rabbit species. The constant threat of fire also looms, as does the specter of other natural disasters. As part of the food chain, the loss of rabbit species in turn portends ill for larger predators; if this doesn’t give pause, consider that, without rabbits, the grasses they eat will grow unchecked, creating even greater fire danger. It’s hard to understand how something so ubiquitous and “unimportant” as a rabbit can be important, but the cycle of life depends on the health of all connections. The next time you see a wild rabbit, consider what it – and other wildlife – does for the state of California, which relies heavily on tourism, adventure sports, and the beauty of its wildlife.

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