Verdant and breathtaking as much of Alaska might be, the Last Frontier is no great shakes when it comes to biodiversity. Such is the nature of boreal forests in general: they typically host few varieties of tree species, although the ones that thrive are as abundant as one might expect in a mostly uninhabited, vast wilderness. And the taiga is indeed vast: comprising most of the forested land area of Canada and Russia, the world’s two largest countries, it represents about one-third of all terrestrial biome coverage, outflanking prairie, rainforest, desert, or even temperate forest by a substantial margin. The Cook Inlet Taiga, wrapped around metro Anchorage, is comparatively small, yet still larger than the entire state of Vermont.
Alaska’s natural wonders owe far more to scale than to specialization; it’s not a huge generalization to say that the unpopulated areas consist largely of spruce, with a smattering of aspen thrown in. (If “smattering” can ever aptly apply to aspen, a stand of which is the single largest life form on earth.) One could say the same can be said for mammalian species: if I recall correctly, the numbers of mammals indigenous to Alaska’s southern coast and interior is fewer than 35. A single county in Texas easily has more native warm-blooded critters than this 49th state that’s 2.5 times larger. I have no doubt that, as one ventures further northward from toward the Arctic Circle, that number dwindles further. As a result, the widely mythologized Alaskan outdoors is, while rugged and remote, somewhat predictable compared to other North American ecosystems. The average adventurer has little to fear in terms of plants with aggressive barbs or toxic leaves; threatening insects are basically unheard of (though the mosquitoes are often affectionate). Instead, those who choose to wander should remain vigilant for a few large and potentially dangerous mammals: certain wolf species, the occasional ill-tempered muskox, various bears (especially brown/grizzly), and, probably most of all, the famed Alaskan moose, whose tremendous size and abundance are a greater danger than its relatively rare instances of aggression.
Given the overwhelming magnitude of austere, breathtaking boreal Alaska, it should come as no surprise that a cynic like me will focus on something harmless and banal: bunnies.
Why should rabbits catch anyone’s attention? Well, in Valdez, a coastal port town at the same latitude as Anchorage (but much wetter), those cute fuzzies are everywhere.
But is that weird? Rabbits are versatile creatures; the order Lagomorpha thrives across all climates, so, even if Valdez is colder than 90% of the US land area, it’s right at sea level and clearly offers plenty of leafy greenery for these lovable lagomorphs to feast upon.
But the rabbits in Valdez just look and act different.
First of all, they display considerable variety in coloring. Most wild rabbits across the Midwest where I grew up all look more or less the same: that tawny color, combined with a white belly and the inevitable cottontail. Valdez rabbits also bigger than the average rabbit of the US temperate, humid continental climate.
Probably twice as big. While the rabbits of my childhood backyard were probably no more than five pounds (often much less), these rabbits looked comparable to the size of a normal house cat. They looked extremely healthy. Perhaps most importantly, though, these rabbits behaved differently. A typical wild rabbit in the lower 48 spends just as much time standing and staring as it does eating, ever vigilant for predators. But not the rabbits of Valdez: completely absorbed in grazing, they didn’t appear skittish or guarded in the last. They also allowed people to get much closer than one might expect. I came less than a foot from one; it didn’t balk and approached my hand for a sniff, then skittered away. If I spent enough time building the trust of one of these rabbits, I expect I could convince it to let me pet it.
This lack of fear is the only reason I can think of as to how one rabbit actually ended up hot pink!
Someone must have gotten close enough to it to splash some paint on it. And yes, these rabbits are everywhere—not just an open field. They’ll happily graze in a patch of land not much bigger than a sandbox, surrounded by asphalt. Everything about the way these rabbits engage with their surroundings suggests they have a very easy life. But weirdest of all: this is a Valdez thing, not an Alaska thing. I saw few or no rabbits in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Palmer, Seward, or Denali National Park. (Juneau ostensibly has a similar problem with its rabbits. But I didn’t visit there.)
So what’s the story behind the Valdez rabbits? There’s no agreed upon explanation, but it’s evident that they are feral descendants of domesticated rabbits. And while various eagles, the most natural predators of these rabbits, certainly dominate the Valdez skies, they may not be abundant enough to counter the notorious rabbit fecundity. So they continue to thrive.
But how did they get there? Most locals assert that, while they’ve co-existed with the rabbits for quite some time, they weren’t always a part of Valdez. Then again, Valdez wasn’t always a part of its current location: the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake (the most powerful in North American history) killed relatively few—Alaska is of course sparsely populated—but devastated Valdez. Geologists and seismologists determined the town’s location atop glacial silt made it too vulnerable to justify rebuilding, but the US Army Corps of Engineers helped initiate a relocation onto a townsite four miles away, retaining the advantageous port conditions but atop superior bedrock. The relocation was successful from a civil engineering and socioeconomic standpoint; over the following decade Valdez more than tripled in population, no doubt abetted by the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1977, bringing numerous jobs to this increasingly auspicious port site. From what I gather, it was during this population surge that locals began to espy all those rabbits, which proliferated rapidly (as rabbits often do) and showed a notable nonchalance toward approaching humans. They simply don’t fear us.
But nothing in that brief historical account explains how Valdez acquired so many rabbits, how they got to be so big and how so tame. Such narratives owe far more to individual anecdotes from elder Valdezians—most likely those who pre-date the town’s earthquake relocation. According to the town’s tourist-oriented website, in an interesting video with regrettably poor audio quality, one older member recalls a “rabbit lady” who lived on the outskirts in the early 1980s (as the town was booming), who fed the small wild rabbits on her property and achieved a bit of a reputation. Those in the town who weren’t as charmed by their pet rabbits as they had hoped (they aren’t necessarily as easy to care for as dogs or cats) decided to surrender their larger, domesticated breeds to the rabbit lady, who cared for them in conjunction with the wild ones. Over time, the interbreeding of the rabbits ran its predictable course, with the larger, semi-feral ones overtaking their smaller cousins, no doubt in part because they pose a greater challenge for raptors and other typical predators. The rabbit lady couldn’t handle them all on her property and repatriated them away from home…in town, no doubt innocent of how prevalent they’d become.
This narrative is apocryphal: according to the video, its credibility plummets at the point when the rabbit lady gathers the bunnies and “dumps” them in the center of town. But nobody offers a better explanation, and the only certainty about Valdez rabbits for the locals is that emotions run high. They undoubtedly qualify at this point as an invasive species, grazing their way into people’s yards, eating their gardens and flowering plants or meandering into garages and wreaking havoc once they realize they’re trapped. These fearless prey animals have even been known to group around people wandering from the supermarket to their car with bags of food, intimating them into getting treats. Municipal code and animal cruelty laws prohibit people from using violent methods to eliminate them (though that hasn’t always stopped the most exasperated), but animal control, when summoned, can deploy a catch-and-release program that often involves spay/neuter, while the release is usually just several miles away. This tactic may at least prevent the rabbit population from reaching unsustainable levels.
Simultaneously, however, these bunnies have morphed into an iconic feature of Valdez. This small city, heavily dependent on summer camping and cruise-related tourism, quickly discovered that the visitors loved the winsome critters, destructive though they may be. As much as some locals entirely resist their nose-twitching charms, the rabbits have assimilated into the city’s lore. At least a few of the locals clandestinely feed them, ensuring their tameness and possibly enabling their aggression. But the conditions haven’t yet reached a level of intolerability. Check out this idiosyncratic little outdoor coffee shop and performance venue:
The owners seem to understand the outsized cultural importance that rabbits play in day-to-day life in Valdez:
At the same time, this playful stationery blithely acknowledges what pests they are. (The bold colors here may legitimately represent a sort of bunny scavenger hunt, thus explaining the pink one I saw earlier.) I don’t see an eradication program taking place any time soon, like they have apparently initiated in Juneau. Maybe their future is replacing the Buccaneers at Valdez High School? One thing’s for certain: should the need for culling emerge (as happens to deer populations in the urbanized lower 48), the citizens of Valdez (and Alaska as a whole) aren’t lacking in access to guns. No matter the bio-homogeneity, Alaskan fauna can pose a real threat…whether huge or tiny.