Government seeks public comment on draft rabbit threat abatement plan

A new blueprint to confront the scourge of rabbits throughout Australia has been launched by the Department of the Environment, which is now eager to seek responses from the public.

The latest draft of the threat abatement plan is blunt in detailing the destructive menace of feral rabbits and outlines its strategy to try to curb these environmental disruptions. According to the draft, rabbits are one of the most serious and costly vertebrate pests within Australia. The Department of Environment estimates that they are a potential threat to around 300 endangered species, which include 15 birds, 20 mammals, six reptiles, one invertebrate, one fish, one amphibian and 260 types of plants. These statistics are twice the number estimated in 2008 under the umbrella of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This brings home the gigantic scale of the problem and as authorities prepare their next course of action, they have set a deadline of March 16, 2016, for public comment.

Rabbits are so widespread and firmly established right across Australia that often resources and techniques dictate a policy of containment rather than outright eradication. However, a total purge is sometimes a legitimate goal within restricted areas such as small reserves, enclosures and offshore islands. The threat abatement plan will implement a nationwide agenda to earmark activities to stem the curse and steer investment and effort by the Australian Government, jurisdictions, research bodies and non-government organisations to combat the malignant influence of pest rabbits on native species. The aim of the new policy is to minimise the impact of rabbits on biodiversity within Australia and its borders by protecting actual and potential threatened species.

Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews said that farmers were among the first to feel the effects on their livelihoods from rabbits’ odious behaviour. But next in line to suffer were native wildlife species such as quolls, bandicoots, bettongs and mountain pygmies. Even the alluring ballerina orchid was caught up in the one-sided battle for supremacy in nature’s pecking order. “It’s a sad fact that there are more rabbits in Australia than there are of any native mammal species, including kangaroos,” said Mr Andrews. “Not only do rabbits compete with local animals for food and burrows but they also destroy habitat, eating native plants and eroding soils so that weeds take over.”

Mr Andrews lamented the seeming ability of rabbits to inflict heavy ecological reverberations despite the innocuous image of their species. “It only takes one rabbit per football field-sized paddock to affect native species,” he said. “The science is also clear that uncontrolled rabbit populations can allow feral cat numbers to escalate because the cats can breed more quickly when food is abundant.”

Backing for the new initiative against rabbits also came from Andreas Glanznig, CEO of Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre. He was pleased that the national plan embraced rabbit biocontrol agents and other management techniques as a critical long-term advancement. “Rabbit biocontrol has reduced the risk of extinction for many threatened species,” he said. “We know that when rabbit numbers fall the benefits to the environment are high.

“However, biocontrol is not a silver bullet and we must be vigilant when it comes to managing rabbits. Conventional control methods such as baiting, fumigation, warren ripping, exclusion fencing, shooting and trapping - done humanely - are also needed in line with biocontrol to maintain rabbit numbers at low levels.”

With the Department of the Environment now looking for public feedback, Mr Andrews said it was important for everyone to get behind the proposals to thin rabbit numbers. “When Environment Minister Greg Hunt created the role of Threatened Species Commissioner and later launched Australia’s first Threatened Species Strategy, he made clear how critical he considers local support and community partnerships to be in conserving native species,” he said. “Rabbits don’t stop at property boundaries and efforts to tackle them shouldn’t either. We need all landholders on board - from farmers to community groups to local governments and conservation land managers - if we are to tackle this threat effectively. Management is always more effective if neighbours coordinate their rabbit control activities.”

In the wake of such a rallying cry, a good response would provide an uplifting fillip to the campaign. The threat abatement plan for competition and land degradation by rabbits is open for public comment until March 16, 2016. Also released is an associated background document covering guidelines for submissions. In providing any submission, it is necessary to complete a cover sheet.

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