It finally happened. The little problem Canmore, Alberta has been having with feral rabbits for the past two decades hit the national news last night. I did a short information piece in the summer on the “bunny problem” for Highline Magazine. The bunnies are cute but that does not change that they are also a pest, an invasive species, and drastic action needs to be taken to control their population. However, information circulating in Canmore and now across the country regarding the rabbits is turning what should be an simple issue to deal with into a three circus.
The bunnies are not a native species. They are the result of irresponsible pet owners in South Canmore and decades of the town not taking action. The rabbit problem could have been prevented if there had been a cull or a mass sterilization when the population was restricted to the area around Lawrence Grassi Middle School and the Bow River. Instead, the town council and the majority of citizens choose to look the other way and when 4 years ago rumblings of a cull began the response that the local papers choose to share in their “Letters to the Editor” was “my children love chasing the bunnies, if we kill them what will that teach them?” The answer is two-fold. First, it will teach them that pets need to be treated like pets and that it is not acceptable to set them free when you are tired of looking after them. Second, it will teach them about invasive species, how delicate ecosystems are, and the cycle of life. Though children could learn the same lessons when a hungry cougar wanders into Canmore in the winter in search of a bunny feast and instead happens upon something more substantial like the family dog or, as has happened before, a human.
The reaction of groups like “Save Canmore Bunnies” is just as worrying as the sentiment that culling the rabbits will not teach children appropriate things about the natural world. The intention behind the movement to trap, sterilize, and relocate the rabbits comes from the same place as the impulse to ensure wildlife are not killed on highways and endangered species are protected. The cost of such an endeavour when the rabbit population has ballooned as it has in Canmore and the inability of relocation alone to combat this problem raises questions about how feasible a solution it is. The sanctuary approach does not work as seen by the recent move by the University of Victoria to stop trapping, sterilizing, and relocating their problem rabbits in favour of the only guaranteed way of controlling the population – trapping and euthanizing.
There has been nearly a decade of debating what to do about the rabbits the population has continued to grow. Inaction is part of what allowed feral rabbits to overrun parts of Australia and New Zealand in the early twentieth century. Nearly a century later these countries are still trying to get what is often referred to as “the rabbit plague” under control. Given the ecological sensitivity of the Bow Valley and the proximity of Canmore to the boundary of Banff National Park there is no time left to debate and look at alternatives because when the bunnies become a problem in the National Park there will be no debate.
If the Canmore rabbits were hares and their populations were declining as a result of rampant development of the Bow Valley this would be an entirely different debate. But the rabbits are the pet store variety and their populations have boomed alongside the development of the Bow Valley. This is not a species at risk, or under threat, or endangered and in need of protection. This is a species that is disrupting the ecological integrity of the area (or what is left of it), posing a risk to native species, and increasing the visits made by large predators to the townsite. None of these are good things and the most effective way to combat them is to eliminate the source – the rabbits.
This species has wreaked havoc around the world. Australia and New Zealand were so over run with rabbits that they have destroyed unique ecosystems and it has taken decades of culling to bring them down to numbers that are nearly manageable and still the rabbits remain a problem. At the University of Victoria, where in the 1960s someone living in residence set their pet rabbits free on campus, the problem got to be so bad that sterilization attempts were ineffective in controlling the population increase that the university was forced to cull the rabbits. Keep in mind UVic is a smaller and more contained area than the Town of Canmore. Even Iceland has a burgeoning bunny problem which an Aussie living in Reykjavik pointed out with calls for caution in the Iceland Review last week.
Canmore need to take drastic action about the bunnies. Action that should have been taken twenty years ago when the rabbits were only in South Canmore. At this point it is impossible for the people who let the original rabbits free to be identified and punished for irresponsible pet ownership, as proposed to Council by the Humane Society of Canada. (It is an open secret among people who have lived in Canmore for more than twenty years how the bunny problem started.)
Council needs to stop pandering to the bleeding hearts and take action about the bunnies. The necessary action will not be popular but it is essential to finally bring the bunny problem under control. The rabbits are an invasive species. They are attracting more coyotes into the town because they are easy prey. If nothing is done they will attract more dangerous animals than coyotes – cougars. If the rabbits are not culled there will be bigger problems than homeowners having to shell out hundred of dollars for rabbit-proof fencing and traps to take control of the problem in their own neighbourhood.
The bunny problem has moved far beyond a neighbourhood headache. It is now an issue of wildlife attraction as well as health and safety for the entire town. A significant portion of rabbit population must be culled, not trapped, sterilized, and relocated, culled. This is the only way to gain a hand up on a species that is bred to reproduce as the pet store rabbits are.