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Canmore feral rabbit cull called off after disease decimates population

Non-native feral rabbit populations have popped up in Canmore, Calgary and Edmonton.  (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)
Non-native feral rabbit populations have popped up in Canmore, Calgary and Edmonton. (Helen Pike/CBC - image credit)

It could be the end of Canmore's feral rabbit saga.

After more than a decade of active battle against the bunnies, the mountain town isn't paying contractors to cull the once domestic animals in 2024 — because they're gone.

The Town of Canmore has spent about $600,000 over the years for a private contractor to comb the town to find the non-native rabbits, trap and euthanize them. But that's not what ultimately nipped the prolific population in the bud. An outbreak of rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) ripped through the population last year.

"We've had a few reports throughout the year, but no confirmed sightings by municipal enforcement staff. And as the year has progressed, we have not seen a return of the population," said the town's manager of protective services, Caitlin Miller.

Miller said it's too soon to know if the bunnies are gone for good, but spending $50,000 on a contractor this year isn't necessary. She said the town can deal with a rogue bunny here and there if they're found hopping around, and re-evaluate if the population resurfaces.

"Our cautionary tale is that we want to keep our native species native to the area that they're in. And if you do have a pet of some sort that you keep it inside, and especially rabbits, we don't want this problem to happen again," Miller said.

According to federal experts, signs of the RHD virus include shortness of breath, groaning, fever, loss of appetite, blood spots in the eyes, bloody noses and even neurological signs, like difficulty walking, seizures and paralysis.

Not a great way to go.

The provincial government deems that as soon as a pet rabbit is let loose, it becomes wildlife and falls under provincial jurisdiction. The province doesn't currently encourage re-homing feral rabbits; it encourages trapping them and putting them down.
The provincial government deems that as soon as a pet rabbit is let loose, it becomes wildlife and falls under provincial jurisdiction. The province doesn't currently encourage re-homing feral rabbits; it encourages trapping them and putting them down.

Canmore's feral rabbit problem started when pets were released in the 1980s. (CBC )

Canmore residents began writing on social media about a lack of rabbits, or even rabbit carcasses, on their normal neighbourhood walks in fall 2022. A carcass found in town was sent to the University of Calgary for testing and returned a positive result for RHD last December.

"There have been no new reports of RHD in feral rabbits in Alberta over the last year," Jason Penner, the communications advisor at Alberta Environment and Protected Areas, wrote in an emailed statement. "RHD outbreaks spread fast and result in high mortality, but don't persist over the long term."

There have been cases of RHD infecting wild species in the U.S., so  the province's wildlife staff is closely watching wild hares, jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits in the vicinity of any outbreak of the virus in domestic rabbits.

Cute, but destructive

The rabbits were said to be descendents of pets released back in the 1980s. They aren't native to Canmore and were causing trouble. Not just in gardens.

"Because the rabbits do burrow, they were actually compromising private and public infrastructure, so people's homes, basements, municipal buildings," Miller said.

"We were having to do some rabbit mitigation projects actually and spending quite a bit of money."

There were also concerns bunnies would become a food source for wildlife like coyotes, and increase the risk of human and animal conflict as a result.

Canmore's rabbit tale

Managing the rabbit problem was just talk when the town first surveyed residents in 2007. Officials decided something needed to be done about a bunny boom in 2011 — estimating the population had doubled from 1,000 to 2,000 feral rabbits.

The plan was to trap and euthanize the rabbits, a move that made international headlines and divided residents.

It caught the attention of the Humane Society of Canada and the matter even went to court when an Edmonton-based photographer applied for an injunction to stall plans and figure out alternatives.

Some called for a tourism boycott, and the RCMP was investigating email threats sent to the town office.

The rabbit round-up began in 2012. But bunny lives were spared at first when local veterinarians in Calgary donated time and supplies to neuter the bunnies before sending them to sanctuaries.

But euthanization began the same year, after those efforts stopped.