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Prevent a Rabbit Invasion

Domesticated rabbits on Molokai that have escaped or been released have been reported around the island and pose a dangerous threat to the ecosystem if not controlled, according to local natural resource managers.

“There are confirmed sightings in a widespread area,” said Butch Haase, executive director of the Molokai Land Trust (MLT). “They could cause devastating ecological and economic impacts like nothing we’ve seen before.”

Haase said MLT staff found a rabbit in one of its fenced restoration sites in the Mokio Preserve near Ilio Point.

“The rabbit had been browsing the endangered ohai plants within the fenced site to the point of killing many of the plants,” he said, adding the animal was large and mostly white. “The rabbit was captured and removed, but there have been other sightings across central and west Molokai.”

Rabbits have also been reported near Hale O Lono, Kaluakoi, Kalae, Ho`olehua, Kaunakakai and Kawela.

Natural resource managers on Molokai are urging rabbit owners to use caution when raising the animals to ensure they don’t escape. According to Hawaii state law, rabbits are required to be housed off the ground. Violations are subject to a fine up to $100 or up to six months prison sentence. 

In addition, environmental leaders caution residents not to release rabbits that may no longer be wanted as pets, and warn of dire consequences for the island if the wild population increases. With no predators in Hawaii, rabbits in the wild go unchecked. 

“Reaching breeding maturity at five to six months of age, rabbits can have a litter of five to 12 ‘kits’ and become pregnant again within a few days of giving birth,” wrote Lissa Fox of the Maui Invasive Species Committee. “Here in the tropics they can breed all year round, meaning one doe can have up to 12 litters a year. That’s 144 rabbits per year from one pair alone.”

That exponential population growth is exactly what happened in several examples of rabbit occurrences here in Hawaii.

On Laysan in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, rabbits devastated the landscape after a sea captain innocently brought rabbits there in the late 1800s. The animals turned the island into a barren wasteland, and through environmental degradation, contributed to the extinction of several endemic bird species, as well as about two dozen plant species. The rabbits were removed from the small island in 1923.

On Haleakala National Park, six rabbits were released by their owner in 1989. In less than two years, that number had grown to 100 rabbits, which were found and removed.

“At Mokio, rabbits could destroy the low growing native vegetation and rare plants that are so important for our ground nesting birds, and endangered yellow-faced bees as well as other native pollinators,” said Haase. “Loss of vegetation could also lead to increased erosion that would damage our near shore marine resources.”

Molokai environmental leaders are asking residents to report any rabbit sightings by emailing details to molokairabbit@gmail.com. Include as much information as possible, like the location, time of day, color of the rabbit, what they were seen feeding on, and a photo if possible. The data will be used to develop a map of frequent sightings so an action plan can be developed for control measures.


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