Big Island group aims to curtail feral rabbit population

  • Courtesy of BRETT GELINAS When feral rabbits aren't trapped, Big Island Invasive Species Committee Manager Springer Kaye said they can "turn their yards into dust bowls.”

Rascally rabbits are wreaking havoc on Hawaii Island, and the Big Island Invasive Species Committee is asking those who spot the animals to report them.

BIISC Manager Springer Kaye said there are at least three, but probably four, established feral rabbit populations in Kona and Waimea.

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According to Kaye, BIISC has photographed 24 individual rabbits but estimates there are as many as 75.

Kaye said the organization doesn’t know where the rabbits came from, but they likely are escaped pets or escaped from hutches used to breed the animals.

Kaye said said one of the feral populations is on at least 20 acres with more than a dozen landowners who are “really at their wits ends with these rabbits.”

The rabbits, Kaye said, “turn their yards into dust bowls,” and can burrow under homes and into yards.

BIISC has received $6,600 grant from the Hawaii Invasive Species Council to work with those landowners to help control the rabbit populations, she said.

According to Kaye, the organization will trap as many as they can and “dispatch” the animals with a pellet gun.

Kaye said cameras with infrared capabilities, previously used to track axis deer, will be used to get a better estimate of rabbit populations, and the grant money will be used to contract hunters.

BIISC is soliciting bids to do that work.

“Escaped rabbits have been a problem for as long as people have been bringing rabbits into Hawaii, whether it’s for pets or for meat,” Kaye said.

Once in the wild, “rabbits do as rabbits do. They’re famous for their reproductive rate.”

Rabbits being raised for game don’t require a lot of feed and water, but established warrens “will eat every plant in the area,” she said.

“Cats and dogs and mongooses are all predators, so we expect we would see a (bigger) rabbit population if we didn’t have those predators keeping them in check.”

Kaye said on the mainland, rabbits face a range of predators, from wolves, coyotes and hawks — and winter conditions also keep them in check.

Once they’re established in the wild, Kaye said, “There’s just not enough pressure from the top down to keep the rabbits in check.”

And if the rabbits survive one or two generations in the wild, they “dig in,” she said, literally creating well-established warrens or dens. They’re wily and smart, and are good at avoiding traps and people.

Kaye said Hawaii has strict laws about keeping rabbits contained because they can be a menace to farmers and gardeners.

The animals must be kept in a secure hutch off the ground, and it’s a violation to release rabbits into the wild because of the problems they can cause, she said.

According to Kaye, rabbits can decimate gardens and pastures, will eat grass down to a much shorter height than sheep or cattle will, and also compete for the forage.

While rabbits can be a sustainable food source, Kaye said owners should recognize the danger and should not release the animals if they’re no longer wanted.

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To report feral rabbits or for more information about bidding, email biisc@hawaii.edu.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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