A decade after the University of Victoria rid its campus of feral rabbits, another rabbit species can be seen there now.
Eastern cottontails can be found grazing near the Human and Social Development and Sedgewick buildings. Native to Eastern and Central North America, they are wild by nature, do not burrow and currently pose little risk to the UVic campus. The presence of feral European rabbits in early 2011 told a different story.
Hundreds of formerly domesticated European rabbits once inhabited the campus following instances of pet rabbit dumping. Problems included burrows, large amounts of feces and damage to local biodiversity.
In summer 2010, UVic began relocating European rabbits on its campus to sanctuaries up Island and as far away as Texas. All rabbits – at least 1,200 – were gone by early March 2011, with over 100 culled.
UVic facility management said there are no rabbits of any kind on campus now. Executive assistant Maria Walker did not reply for comment.
Gail Wallin, executive director for the Invasive Species Council of BC, said eastern cottontails could pose issues for UVic.
“If you think you’ve got small numbers now, they’re not going to stay small,” she said. “That’s the challenge with rabbits and with an invasive species.”
While not all non-native species are invasive, Wallin noted eastern cottontails are an exception.
An eastern cottontail reproduces up to four litters of up to eight kittens. Wallin noted the numbers of any rabbit species can still become prolific. Eastern cottontails do not burrow and mostly eat grass, herbs, seedlings, bark, twigs and buds.
The council says eastern cottontails are invasive and threaten local Garry oak habitats. They may also feed on vulnerable plant species like the golden paintbrush, yellow montane violet and white-top aster.
Eastern cottontails are solitary and do not cluster, which was an issue with the more social European rabbits.
Ian Fraser, senior animal control officer for Victoria Animal Control Services Ltd., said eastern cottontails raise little complaint beyond residents sighting them on their property. He noted Vancouver Island has no indigenous rabbits and responsibility surrounding the eastern cottontail falls on the BC Conservation Officer Service.
“But they really don’t deal with it because it’s a non-native animal, it’s not a dangerous wildlife,” Fraser said.
Though non-native to B.C., eastern cottontails live in harmony with many native plant species.
The council recommends removing Scotch broom and English hawthorn from properties to deter eastern cottontails from sheltering.
Contacted about the rabbits, UVic communications staff said the university has no specialist on staff, but recommended speaking to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations’ Fish and Wildlife branch.
The provincial website states that eastern cottontails can be caught or killed without permit, provided landowner permission is granted on private property.
Eastern cottontails are also susceptible to rabbit hemorrhagic disease, which the BC SPCA says poses no risk to humans and other species and can be eradicated through vaccination and quarantine.
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