San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge Brush Rabbits Attract Experts From Across the Globe

Riparian brush rabbits, photo by Lee Eastman

Brush rabbits appear near sunset on San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is the site of a propagation and reintroduction project for North America’s most endangered lagomorph. Credit: Lee Eastman/USFWS

By Madeline Yancey
October 13, 2016

More than 70 lagomorph scientists from 23 countries recently converged on the town of Turlock, in the middle of California’s Great Central Valley, for the 5th World Lagomorph Conference at the campus of California State University, Stanislaus.

What is a lagomorph? And why would the world’s lagomorph experts assemble — in Turlock?

Riparian brush rabbit on San Joaquin river NWR. Credit: David A.
Hoffman/Flickr CC 4.0 USFWS

A lagomorph is a species of rabbit, hare or pika. Scientifically, it’s in the order Lagomorpha – and it turns out that California has more than nine percent of the world’s lagomorph species; nine species in all – eight hares and rabbits, and one pika.

The World Lagomorph Conference is only held once every four years and at this year’s conference, attendees shared research and ideas on many aspects of the world’s lagomorph species; how they are dealing with climate change; their ecology, behavior, and management; evolution; the population trends and management of lagomorphs in western North America; taxonomy, and more. This is the first time the international conference has been held in the U.S..

But most importantly for the lagomorphs researchers, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, one of three refuges of the San Luis NWR Complex located in Merced and Stanislaus counties, is also the site of a propagation and reintroduction project for North America’s most endangered lagomorph – the riparian brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani riparius).

The refuge is also home to two other California lagomorphs – the desert cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus audubonii) and the black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus).

So it was fitting for the world’s lagomorph experts to be treated to a field trip to the refuge where they could see the riparian brush rabbit in person.

A biologist captures a brush rabbit during a survey of the population on San Joaqion River National Wildlife Refuge in 2015. Credit: Brian Hansen/USFWS

The riparian brush rabbit was federally-listed as an endangered species in 2000. The propagation and reintroduction project -- a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies -- was responsible for the release of nearly 1,500 riparian brush rabbits into remnant and restored riparian woodland habitat on the refuge.

Refuge manager Kim Forrest welcomes lagomorph researchers and scientists from 23 countries during their visit to the refuge. Credit: Jack Sparks/USFWS

Now, the rabbit’s population has increased to the point many biologists believe it is on its way to being eligible for down-listing or de-listing.

After receiving a brief overview of the refuge and its management, the visitors, led by refuge staff members, and program director and conference organizer Dr. Patrick Kelly, took a late afternoon walk along the refuge’s Pelican Nature Trail to a spot at which they were likely to see the resident riparian brush rabbit.

They stopped, quietly watched…and waited.

As the sun set behind them, the international visitors began their search for the illusive lagomorph. Credit: Jack Sparks/USFWS

They were not disappointed. As the day’s last light was fading, a few riparian brush rabbits appeared, scampering back and forth across the trail, emerging from and disappearing into the dense understory of native vegetation.

Riparian Brush Rabbit. Lee Eastman

The brush rabbits did not disapoint. Emerging from the dense vegetation as if on cue, they did not fail to impress their international visitors. Credit: Lee Eastman/USFWS

The brush rabbits were playing to an easy crowd, however, because even the common desert cottontails captivated this group. That was not so surprising, because if a visitor comes from outside North America, they have probably never seen a desert cottontail rabbit – a species found only in the U.S. and Mexico.

The visitors were further amazed when their question, “which mammal species do you have here (on the refuge),” was answered with a long list that included mink, weasel, ground squirrel, gray fox, red fox, beaver, river otter and many others.

International visitors like the lagomorph scientists remind us of the good conservation work taking place around the world, to make sure ordinary species remain so, and the not-so-ordinary ones do not disappear.

Madeline Yancey, San Luis NWR

Madeline Yancey, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Madeline Yancey

Madeline Yancey is a visitor services specialist at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Los Banos, California.

She began her service as a Pathways Intern and is a frequent contributor to our website and the Service's Field Notes news magazine.   — Ed.