- - Monday, August 6, 2018

Rabbits in the District of Columbia are multiplying like, well, rabbits — and residents say the municipal government seems to be unaware of the bunny boom.

People who garden in Northwest, Northeast and just beyond the D.C. border say they have witnessed a growth in the rabbit population like they have never seen before. They say a large acorn drop last fall and recent heavy rainfall are likely contributing factors.

“I see them every time I am in the garden,” said Colette Rausch, who participates in a Montgomery County Parks community garden on Fenton Street, just north of the District.

“My weeds have flourished, but beets, carrots and peas never had a chance,” said Linette Lander of Rock Creek Community Garden, who first noticed the varmints nibbling her plants in Northeast this spring.

A burgeoning bunch of bunnies could destroy backyard vegetables and make gardening a hobby they can’t afford.

But the Department of Energy and Environment, which manages wildlife in the District, is seeking volunteers to “protect and conserve” the city’s rabbit population.

Kathy Jentz, editor and publisher of Washington Gardener magazine, said a department official reached out to her and other gardeners to suggest that rabbit populations are threatened.

“I feel like maybe this person works in an office because they’re not seeing the evidence right in front of their face,” Ms. Jentz said in an interview.

She said she worries that city officials might believe the rabbit population is decreasing and are concerned that hawks and other predators could suffer. Yet every community gardener she knows has reported dealing with more rabbits this year than ever before.

Lindsay Rohrbaugh, a fish and wildlife biologist at the Department of Energy and Environment, said the agency doesn’t know whether the rabbit population is increasing or decreasing, but it has issued requests for Citizen Scientist volunteers to document bunny sightings.

The Citizen Scientist program is intended to help “protect and conserve rare species” and to keep common species common, Ms. Rohrbaugh said in an email.

Some D.C. residents say rabbits in Northwest and Northeast have become as common as pigeons in New York City or deer in Northern Virginia.

“I’ll come up to a community garden plot, and the rabbits don’t run. … They don’t have any fear of humans,” Ms. Jentz said.

Ms. Rausch said she first noticed batches of bunnies in Montgomery County last summer.

“This summer, the bunnies were back and in greater numbers,” she said.

Another gardener, Inez Austin Jackson, said it took “fences, water hose chasing, my cat and finally neighboring foxes” to fend off the hungry hordes of hopping hares.

“Even still, I still see rabbits hopping about outside my property in neighboring yards,” she said.

Ms. Jentz said the number of inside-the-Beltway bunny sightings has gone from zero to several dozens per week. “Five years ago, you didn’t hear anything,” she said.

If the rabbit population growth continues indefinitely, she said, “people would quit gardening. … After you’ve got your stuff eaten down twice, you’re not likely to plant a third time.”

The District’s wildlife action plan lists the Eastern cottontail rabbit as a “species of greatest conservation need.”

The Department of Energy and Environment website says the effort is crucial to preserving an underpopulated species. The action plan does not specify what threats rabbits face but says the Eastern cottontail “can benefit from habitat restoration and meadow creation.”

The action plan lists 205 species as “greatest conservation need.”

Ms. Rohrbaugh said the agency has not implemented specific regulations on the rabbit population, but “management actions would be further down the line if there was an issue with the population.”

Her department is not trying to repopulate rabbits, she said.

Ms. Rausch said she holds out hope that gardeners one day can reconcile with bunnies.

“Yes, I was annoyed about the damage. But then I also feel like bunnies are going to be bunnies,” she said.

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