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How to conserve a keystone prey: does hunting limit rabbit abundances and population trends after RHD?

Daryl Williams, Christian Gortazar, Pelayo Acevedo, Rafael Villafuerte


The current situation of the European wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in Spain is one where some populations have recovered after RHD (Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease), but others remain severely depleted. Due to its keystone status in Spain's Mediterranean ecosystems, several factors have been studied to determine what will stabilize this species and eventually propagate its recovery. Many of the previous efforts to determine these pivotal factors have been focused on a few localities and short-term studies, and most management efforts and studies focused on well-preserved habitats of southwestern Spain. In this study we look at spotlight counts from 56 localities over the past 12 years following the arrival of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease in Aragón, northeastern Spain. From this long-term study it is clear the positive effect that a good habitat plays in rabbit population recovery. Rabbit populations increased during the study period in Termomediterranean valley agrosystems with low altitudes, little rainfall, high temperatures, large proportion of agricultural use, and soft soils, but not in mountain habitats with opposite characteristics. Once data are controlled for the habitat quality, we point out the negative effect that hunting pressure puts on this very important species. These results are discussed in relation to the management actions that currently are promoted or discussed by hunters and conservationists in Spain.