Montana Biologist Withdraws Claim of Rabbit’s Disappearance

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – A Montana biologist has withdrawn his claim in a recent study that a rabbit species has disappeared from the Yellowstone area.

Joel Berger, a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said Thursday that he has been contacted by at least six biologists and naturalists refuting his conclusions about the white-tailed jack rabbit. He said they provided photos and anecdotal evidence the rabbit still lives in the area.

“Yes, there were some left,” Berger said. “I’ve got egg on the face, absolutely.”

Berger’s study, published in January in the science journal Oryx, claimed the once-common rabbit had disappeared from the Yellowstone region sometime last century, for unknown reasons. His findings were written about by news organizations including The Associated Press.

On Thursday, Berger said he now believes the rabbits survive in small numbers within Yellowstone National Park and nearby Gardiner. He provided a copy of a letter he said will correct the record in Oryx’s April issue.

The conclusion that the rabbits had vanished was based on Berger’s own work in the Yellowstone region, historical records and interviews with park biologists and naturalists. In the letter, Berger acknowledges interviewing more people for the study “would have improved abilities to detect whether the hares still persist.”

He said the study’s broader point — that the rabbit’s decline may have forced predators to turn to other food sources — remains valid.

Berger is also a professor in the wildlife biology program at the University of Montana.

Katy Christomanou, an editor with Oryx’s publisher, Cambridge University Press, said Thursday she “was not aware” of questions raised about Berger’s study and had not seen his subsequent correction letter.

She referred questions to Oryx editor Martin Fisher. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Professional wildlife tracker Jim Halfpenny does frequent work in and around Yellowstone. He said Thursday that he has found multiple signs of the jack rabbits at the north end of the park as recently as last week.

“There’s a small portion of Yellowstone in prime jack rabbit habitat,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of jack rabbits there.”