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Canmore feral rabbit removal program halted following deadly disease

A fatal disease in Canmore’s fatal rabbit population is believed to have eradicated the well-known bunnies in the mountain town.

CANMORE – A fatal disease in Canmore’s fatal rabbit population is believed to have eradicated the well-known bunnies in the mountain town.

Canmore council approved the removal of the feral rabbit management program from the Town’s 2024 budget. The program, which was budgeted for $55,500, comes after the Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD) – a highly contagious and fatal viral disease – swept through Canmore’s feral bunnies in 2022 and early 2023.

“We had some one-off sightings since November, December [2022], but they’ve been very one-off,” said Caitlin Miller, the Town’s manager of protective services. “Since the spring, we’ve had no confirmed sightings of any feral rabbits throughout town. We’ve checked out when they were sightings and haven’t found any.”

Miller said they had a handful of reports of feral rabbits in the spring, but they were on the edge of town where wildlife is more active. She said when municipal enforcement staff responded to the report, the feral rabbit had fled the scene.

The last feral rabbit report was in August, Miller said.

RHD was confirmed in Canmore after testing at the University of Calgary was completed in late 2022. While it killed off many rabbits, some did appear in early 2023.

The disease is specific to lagomorphs – rabbit and hare species. Once a rabbit is exposed to RHD, it typically becomes sick in one to five days and death is common following a short period of being ill. Signs of the sickness for rabbits are shortness of breath, groaning, loss of appetite and fever.

RHD has risen up in other Canadian communities such as Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in 2018, which largely wiped out their populations of feral rabbits.

It has also been confirmed in areas in Alberta such as Taber, Calgary and Edmonton, but also areas of the southwest United States and the northern part of Mexico.

The Outlook reached out the the province’s ministries of Forest and Parks and Environment and Protected Areas to confirm if RHD had been detected elsewhere, but did not receive a response prior to publication.

From 2012-22, the Town spent $587,000 to remove $2,130 feral rabbits at a cost of $275 per rabbit.

Miller said in 2022, the Town was aware of RHD hitting feral rabbits in nearby Calgary and became aware it may have reached Canmore in the fall of 2022.

“We were hearing more commentary in the community that there were less rabbit sightings and ourselves, we were noticing that there were less rabbits as well,” she said. “We did find a few rabbit carcasses that we then sent in for testing because we knew that the disease had gone through Calgary.

“After November, December [2022] and going into January [2023], we didn’t see many rabbits. There were a few reported on the outskirts of town, but every time we’d check it out we did not see evidence of it or the rabbit would be gone by the time the contractor came out to try and trap it.”

After a brief discussion on the topic at budget talks earlier this year, Town council approved the removal of the program when it set the 2024 budget on Dec. 5.

The removal of the program is a savings of $55,500. The financial impact was $54,000 in 2022 and $8,000 in 2023.

At the initial finance committee meeting on Oct. 31, Town staff recommended the feral rabbit management program be removed from the 2024 budget due to population of bunnies being significantly reduced.

“[RHD] really has essentially decimated our rabbit population, so we are expecting no longer to need to contract services to work on that,” said Therese Rogers, the Town’s general manager of corporate services at the Oct. 31 meeting in a budget presentation.

Town CAO Sally Caudill told the committee the municipality intentionally kept it in the 2023 budget and worked with the contractor to monitor for a full year if feral rabbits began appearing.

Scott McKay, the Town’s general manager of municipal services, said “none or very very few” were observed. However, the Town’s municipal enforcement staff would respond to reports of feral rabbits returning. If that happened, Town staff would return to council for further discussion.

“If we were looking at an operational change, we need to discuss that after the observation as opposed to having just in case,” he said.

Canmore rabbits became a unique attraction to many tourists and a nuisance for locals when they first started to appear in the 1980s when domesticated rabbits were released. Over the years and decades, they continued to breed to grow the feral rabbit population.

However, since rabbits aren’t a native wildlife species – which falls under the jurisdiction of the province if they were – became municipal responsibility.

Visitors to Canmore often noted the rabbits, which look closer to household pets in colour as opposed to feral, but numbered in the thousands.

Miller noted there was never an exact feral rabbit count in Canmore.

“We did not do a bunny census,” she said. “It’s really hard to say. We could confirm how many were trapped each year, but we can’t confirm how many were actually in the population.”

Though appearing cute and cuddly, the local bunnies could wreak havoc on local infrastructure.

In 2021, the provincial government asked Canmore to rabbit-proof municipal infrastructure.

When the Stan Rogers Memorial Stage was renovated in 2022, part of the $200,000 project was to keep rabbits from nesting underneath the structure. With Centennial Park being a lunch and dinner spot for hundreds of rabbits, the work was intended to mitigate future damage.

At the 2023 budget, the 2025 operating plan asked for an estimated $80,000 to help rabbit-proof Elevation Place. However, any decision wouldn’t be needed until budget talks for 2025, which take place in late 2024.

“It does compromise infrastructure, so we’re worried about the building envelope. It can be quite costly to rabbit-proof,” Miller said.

The main concern for feral rabbits, however, is the potential for them to be a food source for predator species such as coyotes, cougars and wolves. The Bow Valley wildlife co-existence group recommended removing unnatural food attractants from Canmore to help manage human-wildlife conflicts, which included feral rabbits.

The Town began its feral rabbit management program in late 2011 by hiring a contractor to trap and humanely kill feral rabbits.

While the program was being developed, a local group called Save Canmore Bunnies was created to ask the Town to spay, neuter and relocate the feral rabbits as opposed to killing them.

The Human Society of Canada threatened a legal challenge, but when the Town was looking for options no proposals to save the feral rabbits met the municipality’s request for contractors. However, at the time the Town left the door open for any group who wanted to establish or find sanctuaries for the feral rabbits that met the criteria they would be turned over instead of killed.

An Edmonton-based photographer and rabbit advocate Daniel Onischuk went to Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench over the program’s creation, claiming it went against the Wildlife Protection Act. The Alberta Court of Appeal declined to hear an appeal and he eventually petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to hear an appeal on the Court of Queen’s Bench decision.

Canada’s highest court denied his request in early 2014.

Miller said if residents or visitors see a feral rabbit in the community, they can report it to the Town’s municipal enforcement department at 403-678-4244 or [email protected]. She added it was important for people to secure pets at all times to avoid them being introduced into the wild.

“We want to make sure non-native specifies aren’t released into our environment,” she said. “It does cause a number of problems, so it’s important for people to secure rabbits, take care of your pets and report if there are any rabbits who look like they may be pets.”

About the Author: Greg Colgan

Greg is the editor for the Outlook.
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