ST. GEORGE — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced their 90-day findings for 10 petitions to list species under the Endangered Species Act, including the “cutest little critter” native to Southern Utah.

A pygmy rabbit looks alert on a snowy landscape, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho, Jan. 9, 2011 | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

Experts worry that sagebrush habitat in the West is rapidly shrinking, with an estimated annual loss of 1.3 million acres due to various stresses, including climate change and invasive plants. This development could put over 350 species at risk, including the pygmy rabbit, St. George News reported last year.

The minuscule lagomorph weighs approximately 1/2 to 1 pound and is found throughout the West, including Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Colorado.

The Center for Biological Diversity reports that “populations of the once-common pygmy rabbits have progressively dwindled” over the last 50 years.

“The pace of habitat loss and degradation of the pygmy rabbit’s sagebrush habitat has accelerated to unsustainable levels,” the nonprofit stated in a news release. “In addition, an emerging virus first detected in pygmy rabbits in 2022 poses a serious threat to their survival.”

A pygmy rabbit peaks out of its burrow, location not specified, Nov. 6, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Miranda Crowell, St. George News

The “super deadly” Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus Serotype 2 has a mortality rate of up to 100% once in a burrow system, Allison Jones, a conservation biologist, told St. George News last year.

For these reasons and others, multiple agencies petitioned Fish and Wildlife to list the species on March 6, 2023, Jones said.

On Thursday, the service announced its finding that pygmy rabbits and eight other plants and animals may warrant threatened or endangered species status. These include Arizona’s Southwest spring firefly, Nevada’s Railway Valley toad and the Mojave Desert’s white-margined penstemon.

The agency will conduct a 12-month status review to make a final listing determination for each species, according to the Proposed Rule published to the Federal Register on Thursday.

One species, the eastern hellbender salamander, will not receive a status review. The agency stated that it did not have substantial information indicating that action would be warranted.

A scientist holds an endangered Columbia Basin pygmy in a blanket, Grant County, Wash. May 25, 2023 | Photo courtesy of Z. Radmer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, St. George News

Fish and Wildlife’s review of the pygmy rabbit petition found substantial evidence that the species is threatened by habitat loss. It will review other potential impacts, including livestock grazing, oil and gas development, fire, cheatgrass, climate change and disease.

Greta Anderson, deputy director of Western Watersheds Project, said the nonprofit’s staff is excited about the announcement.

“We didn’t expect it because … we submitted last March, so the 90-day finding would have been due somewhere last summer,” she said. “We never heard from them. The 12-month finding is due again in March, so it kind of came out of the blue (Wednesday), but that’s quite exciting — happy to know that they’re taking a hard look at it.”

An endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit lays in the dirt, Grant County, Wash. May 25, 2023 | Photo courtesy of Z. Radmer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, St. George News

Anderson said that, despite its name, the agency may take over a year to conduct its 12-month review, as it often misses statutory deadlines.

“We hope it won’t take too much longer because when species are imperiled, time matters,” she said. “And getting them the protections they need — obviously, the sooner the better.”

“They have a right to exist and the impacts on their habitat and the subsequent population declines are largely caused by human action,” Anderson continued. “And so we would like to see the pygmy rabbit protected and have a fighting chance against extinction.”

Last year, Anderson said pygmy rabbits are similar to teddy bears.

A pygmy rabbit huddles in the grass at the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho, Dec. 17, 2010 | Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

“How can you look at a pygmy rabbit and say, ‘I don’t care?’” she said. “It feels to me like this is the sort of quintessential critter that tells us something about life in the West, and we should do our best to protect it so that our kids can see the cutest little critter.”

Beginning Thursday, people can submit comments online to the agency regarding the potential listing of pygmy rabbits. Individuals will also find additional commenting options and instructions on providing input for the other nine species.

The footage shown in the video at the top of this article was provided by the Oregon and Washington state Bureau of Land Management.

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