Rabbits have a reputation in San Juan Island Historical National Park due to their population explosion. The European rabbits are a non-native, invasive species and accounts of their introduction differ, but generally agree they were first introduced sometime between the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
The stories vary about how the bunnies came to be on the island but one account states that in 1903 a Mr. Breedlove and H. and R. Guard introduced several domestic breeds to the island. An especially rough winter in 1916 killed off many rabbit descendants but in 1925 a rabbit farm was started by Howard Wilson and a Mr. Miller. The rabbits were fenced on Cady Mountain until the business floundered in 1934 and the men released 3,000 rabbits into the island, freely. Once the rabbits bred in the wild and lost their domesticity they reverted back to their original European rabbit lineage. It was estimated by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife that a million rabbits were living on San Juan Island by 1970.
The environmental impact included devouring the native grasses, burrowing tunnels and eating the crops. Park officials stated "over the years the rabbits have turned portions of the American Camp prairie into a moonscape." While predators such as foxes feasted on the rabbits, it was not enough. Hunters promoted rabbit hunting in the 1960s with a Bunny Buggies. The San Juan Rabbit Tales told of how drivers would guide the rabbit car through the fields at night with a spotter shining a light on a rabbit, at which point one of the netters would jump off and, going around the other side of the rabbit, net it. The captured animals were then put into cages lashed to the back of the car. Using this method, a hundred or more rabbits could be secured each night. But around 1979, the population suddenly decreased and many attributed this decline to weather, myxomatosis and the use of ferrets by hunters.
Currently, the rabbits are facing another plague called Rabbit hemorrhagic disease. SeaDoc Society Science Director Joe Gaydos, VMD, Ph.D offered this insight, “From an ecosystem perspective, this virus could really knock back the introduced population of European rabbits in the islands, permitting recovery of soils and native plants that rabbits can decimate.” With the transmission of the disease, the non-native rabbit population faces an uncertain future and the native grasses on American Island may rebound to their original state.