The public is being asked by researchers with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to report incidents of dead rabbits to officials. A new virus, first found in the U.S. in 2020, is making its way …
The public is being asked by researchers with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to report incidents of dead rabbits to officials. A new virus, first found in the U.S. in 2020, is making its way through several southwestern and western states and threatening both wild and domestic rabbit populations.
Dr. Peach VanWick, assistant state wildlife veterinarian for the Game and Fish and manager at the Thorne/Williams Wildlife Research Center, is seeking to alert residents of the new virus and collect data in an effort to mitigate the effects of the virus, fatal to an important species in the state.
“They’re an important part of the food chain,” VanWick said in a Thursday interview.
A reduction in wild rabbits can affect ecosystems like a wave.
The virus only kills rabbits, but due to their numbers and the nature of their constant “co-mingling,” the virus has quickly spread in neighboring states and will affect predator species that rely on cottontails as a major food source. For example, in bad rabbit years, golden eagles will look to other food sources — including perhaps species of concern, like sage grouse.
It will be tough to control the virus, VanWick said. “Unfortunately, this virus is really hardy in the environment and it can survive freezing temperatures.”
The department is now collecting wild rabbit carcasses to be tested for Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2, known as RHDV2. Testing rabbits is key to monitoring the disease spread.
Samantha Allen, Game and Fish state wildlife veterinarian, said all of Wyoming’s rabbits and hares are susceptible — and that includes game and non-game species like cottontail rabbits, jack rabbits and potentially pygmy rabbits. Domestic rabbits are also at risk, but other domestic pets and livestock are not.
“Any rabbit could become infected with the disease — so it could be a cottontail living in your yard or the one you see while hiking,” Allen said.
RHDV2 does not pose a threat to humans, but rabbits may carry other diseases that can, like tularemia and plague. The Wyoming rabbit season runs statewide through March 31 with daily bag limits of 10 and a possession limit of 20 for cottontails and four daily and eight total for snowshoe hares.
VanWick cautions RHDV2 can spread on people’s clothes and shoes.
“If somebody has a bunny that’s sick, the contaminated cage or bedding material can also harbor that virus,” she said.
The first case in the United States was identified in April in New Mexico. It quickly spread through the state, with at least one wild or domestic rabbit found with the virus in most counties. And that’s why wildlife managers are really trying to get on top of it.
The disease has been found in eight states, including Colorado, with a lone Wyoming case in Albany County. VanWick worries about the coming domestic rabbit competitions at county and state fairs.
“There is certainly a lot of concern,” she said, adding, “We’re working with the livestock board and our colleagues at the Department of Agriculture to figure out the best measures moving forward.”
The public is advised not to touch or pick up any dead wild rabbits. Rather, note the location and call the Game and Fish Wildlife Health Lab at 307-745-5865 or the nearest regional office of the Game and Fish.