Easter bunny blasters want more targets

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1998:

DUNEDIN (New Zealand)––Of all the animal massacres
assocated with spring religious observance, the Easter
bunny shoot at Alexandra, New Zealand, most nakedly celebrates
killing for the hell of it.
The 12-member Tuturau Titty Ticklers blasted 712
rabbits to win the 24-hour, 25-team killing contest this year,
as shooters griped of an alleged paucity of targets caused by
the unauthorized release last summer of rabbit calicivirus
(RCD). The bag fell to 5,290, from nearly 24,000 in 1997.
“A group called the Waihou Virus shot more geese
than rabbits,” reported the New Zealand Press Association.
“Eight teams bagged fewer than 100 each.”
That left organizer Martin McPherson to pick among
ending the event, opposing RCD use, or targeting captive animals,
like the Labor Day pigeon shoot at Hegins,
Pennsylvania. Any of the options would belie the purported
higher purpose, in combatting the depredations of feral rabbits.

But, though rabbit proliferation in New Zealand and
Australia has long been problematic, it has never been clear
that they do a fraction as much ecological harm as sheep, the
agricultural staple species in both nations. Mainly, sheep
ranchers blame rabbits for their problems, much as U.S. cattle
ranchers blame coyotes and Atlantic Canadian fishers blame
RCD, the latest anti-rabbit weapon, was found
among European rabbits in China in 1984, and in Mexico in
1990, apparently imported with a frozen rabbit carcass from
Korea. As RCD appeared to be species-specific, Australia
began investigating possible deliberate deployment at a test
site on Wardong Island. In 1995, however, either insects or
birds took RCD prematurely to the mainland.
After sweeping Australia, RCD was bootlegged to
New Zealand in 1998, and soon afterward was released officially,
as officials argued that delay would mean further use of
homemade versions, which in the long run might tend to
immunize more rabbits than were killed. A suspected benign
form of RCD is already suspected of immunizing up to a third
of the exposed Australian rabbit population, but whether the
immunity is maternally conferred remains unclear.
Data from the Otago peninsula of New Zealand––the
locale of the Easter bunny shoot––indicates that RCD released
there afflicted 82% of the resident rabbits, killing 68%.
Fourteen percent became ill but recovered, developing immunity,
while 18% were apparently already immune.
Massey University epidemiologist Dirk Pfeiffer in
February began a $50,000 radio collaring study to find out
why RCD is reportedly killing virtually all the rabbits in some
areas, even as populations rebound in others.
The New Zealand health ministry meanwhile asked
the Wellington School of Medicine to investigate the possibility
that RCD might be crossing over into humans. That notion
first surfaced in Mexico, where one human was reportedly
infected. A South Australian Health Commission study in
January held that humans cannot get RCD, but a re-analysis of
the South Australian data by U.S. epidemiologist Alvin Smith
and pediatrician David Matson, of the Eastern Virginia
Medical School, found that many of the study subjects had
developed antibodies to RCD, suggesting some infection.
Since March 28, 1998, Zenith Technology of
Dunedin has been selling RCD to anyone who wants it,
expecting sales volume this year of about $750,000.
Wildlife impact
The Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service
in March claimed success in using a combination of RCD and
poisoning to extirpate rabbits from Cabbage Tree Island, the
only known breeding habitat of the endangered Gould’s petrel.
Rabbits had inhabited the island from 1906 until the last
reported dead rabbit on September 16, 1997.
According to Sydney Morning Herald r e p o r t e r
Honey Webb, the rabbits had “destroyed the vines, shrubs,
seedlings and leaf litter which once covered the rainforest
floor and protected the petrels’ breeding grounds.” As of
1992, the island supported 500 rabbits but only 150 petrels.
“Without the rainforest undergrowth,” Webb continued,
the petrels “were easy prey for currawongs and ravens.
As well, gluey fruits from the island’s bird-lime trees immobilized
the petrels by sticking to their feathers, instead of dropping
onto leaves higher in the canopy.”
An estimated 316 Gould’s petrel chicks hatched this
year. They will roam the Pacific Ocean for five years before
the survivors return to Cabbage Tree Island to mate.
But rabbit foes are finding that RCD is not quite the
boon for native species that they anticipated.
First, it often doesn’t work. In the Sydney area,
Rural Lands Protection Board managing director Andrew
Glover announced on April 29, rabbit numbers are at an alltime
high despite RCD use.
Second, Sydney Morning Herald rural editor
Anthony Hoy reported in February, where RCD has killed
most rabbits, biologists have also seen “the decimation of
marsupials of all sizes, as foxes and feral cats are deprived of
their rabbit kill. Studies in New South Wales,” Hoy wrote,
“show that foxes have learned to take joey grey kangaroos
from their mothers. Scientists are also concerned that brushtail
possums may not survive the change in the predatory order.”
That wouldn’t disturb New Zealand conservationists,
who are trying to exterminate brushtail possums almost as
avidly as rabbits. Native to Australia, where they now are
scarce, brushtail possums were introduced to New Zealand by
fur trappers as a potential prey species, proliferated, and
are––like rabbits––accused of destroying bird habitat.
But New Zealand Forest and Bird Society field officer
Basil Graeme did predict ecodisaster as a probable result of
the January 1998 formation of the New Zealand Ferret
Association, by owners of pet ferrets. Graeme argued that pet
ferrets, if encouraged, would soon escape and go feral, as
closely related stoats and weasels already have. The stoats,
however, were imported for use in attempted rabbit control.
“A surge in ferret numbers as rabbits collapse is a
lethal combination for native wildlife,” he said. “The last
thing we need are escaped and released ferrets. Penguins,
kiwi, weka, dotterel, and stilts are just some of our native
birds being killed by mustelids,” the family including ferrets,
stoats, and weasels. “It seems idiotic to us,” Graeme continued,
“to have the government requiring the Department of
Conservation to issue [exotic pet] permits which boost ferret
distribution and numbers, when taxpayers are also funding the
department to stop mustelids killing native wildlife.”
The November 1997 find of a dead Bennett’s wallaby
near Nelson, New Zealand, raised the possibility that
killing rabbits might open habitat to other feral herbivores. At
least two wallaby species were at some point introduced to
New Zealand from Australia, but were believed to have been
limited to the vicinities of Rotorua and Canterbury.
Bennett’s wallabies, Christchurch Landcare
Research staff scientist John Parkes said, could be “as devastating
on the environment as rabbits.”

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