June 2021 - 37

Adding to the toll
When the rabbit from south of Laramie
arrived in late February, Jennings-Gaines
guessed it likely had the disease. It had blood
on its nose and no other signs of trauma.
When she cut it open in a secure, post-mortem
room, she found its liver had begun to
hemorrhage, sending blood into its abdomen.
The cottontail was tested for plague and
tularemia - both diseases that can infect
humans - and then Jennings-Gaines harvested
the liver, lung and spleen to store in
the lab's freezer kept at minus-70 degrees
Fahrenheit.
It's the same lab where technicians run
through thousands of tests for chronic wasting
disease each year, and researchers are constantly
working on developing new tests for
new diseases.
In the midst of collecting samples, developing
tests and watching the disease's progress,
wildlife officials are asking the bigger question:
What will the broader impact of RHDV2 be
on Wyoming's rabbit populations?
The short answer - no one knows for
sure. " I don't think we yet have a good handle
on where it is in Wyoming, " said Hank
Edwards, a Game and Fish wildlife disease
specialist. " We don't have enough submissions.
Most people thought the disease would
take a break in the winter, but it hasn't. "
Most estimates predict the virus could kill
40 to 70 percent of wild rabbits. Even if it's
on the low end, Edwards said that's significant
since rabbits are the food base for most of
Wyoming's predators.
Bjornlie worries mostly about pygmy
rabbits. The tiny, imperiled rabbit lives in
southwest Wyoming, and its habitat overlaps
with cottontails and jackrabbits. A worstcase
scenario would find the disease ripping
through that fragile population.
Cottontail and jackrabbit populations
might bounce back after survivors develop
antibodies and build immunity, Allen said.
Rabbit numbers tend to cycle, numbers
climbing for years then crashing. RHDV2
represents one more disease causing their
populations to drop.
Will it be the straw that broke the back of
Wyoming's rabbit populations? Probably not,
Edwards said, " but it all adds up. "
The best way to ultimately know the
impact of the virus, and, in the case of pygmy
rabbits, potentially intervene, is by tracking
and cataloguing deaths.
Jackrabbits and other members of the rabbit family are susceptible to RHDV2. (Photo by Tim Christie)
" It's important for us to know what
our populations are doing, " Edwards said.
" Because someday, there may be something
we can do about it. "
- Christine Peterson has spent nearly a decade
writing about Wyoming's fish, wildlife, outdoors and
environment. She is a regular contributor to Wyoming
Wildlife.
Wyoming Wildlife | 37

June 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of June 2021

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