We reached out to Peter Lancaster who is an active landowner in pygmy rabbit preservation to tell us how he participates in voluntary stewardship.
What practices have you implemented (or installed) on your farm for conservation and why?
I suppose that the use of my land is quite different from most owners, but I hope we share in the belief that good conservation practices protect and enhance the land. I don’t grow crops or raise livestock, instead I use my land for breeding of an endangered species, the pygmy rabbit.
I have benefited from the practices of the previous owner and original titleholder. They kept a large portion as rangeland when it was first homesteaded, so the sagebrush steppe ecosystem was intact and healthy, even after 100 years of use. My first rule is to do no harm and to follow practices that are at least as good as the pioneer who came before me. However, about one-third of my land was planted in a monoculture of crested wheatgrass during the 1980’s after it was put in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). When I pulled it out of CRP, I wasn’t sure how to convert the monoculture to something that resembled native habitat. I noticed that sage was spreading naturally, so I took a wait and see approach. Over two decades, the sage, native grasses, and forbs outcompeted and replaced the crested wheatgrass and the land now resembles native sagebrush steppe. I’ve learned that the native habitat is quite resilient. Over a long period of time, CRP creates an excellent stage to convert land to native habitat and the current seed mixtures are better than the previous monoculture seeding.
As far as pygmy rabbit husbandry goes, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is now maintaining breeding pens on my former CRP ground. Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible to have pygmies on that ground, but the native reclamation of the crested wheatgrass cover made it possible. The habitat supports pygmy rabbits without additional food, water, or shelter in temporary 1 to 2-acre pens.
Who would you recommend contacting to start conservation practices on their land?
From the beginning I’ve worked mainly with WDFW and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) because our interests and purposes overlapped. I allow hunting on my land and WDFW gives legal protection to the private landowner. TNC helped with habitat restoration and weed control on my land after the Sutherland Canyon Fire. Both the state agency and the private organization keep up with current research that they share with me. I can’t speak highly enough of the biologists from WDFW Region 1 office for their willingness to answer questions or to enter into public/private partnerships that protect or enhance plants or wildlife. I have also worked with Washington State University and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All the mentioned agencies and services are more than willing to help me with conservation practices.
What are the best and worst outcomes you have experienced from implementing conservation practices?
The best outcome I have experienced is the success of the pygmy rabbit breeding enclosure on my land in producing rabbits for relocation throughout Douglas County and northern Grant County. In 2015, 400 pygmy rabbit kits were captured from the breeding enclosure and relocated elsewhere. The worst outcome was the devastation caused by the Sutherland Canyon Fire that burned nearly 500 acres of my land. Before the fire happened, I considered active fire control measures such as plowed fire strips, but I rejected that practice because the likelihood of a massive fire where my land is located seemed remote. I was wrong.