(Above) Indigenous marsh rabbits are in a boom cycle on Sanibel, coming out en masse in the twilight hours. Photo Courtesy Jeanloujustine/Wikimedia Commons (Below right) Mimosa is recommended as a good groundcover replacement for sod. Photo Courtesy SCCF
(Above) Indigenous marsh rabbits are in a boom cycle on Sanibel, coming out en masse in the twilight hours. Photo Courtesy Jeanloujustine/Wikimedia Commons (Below right) Mimosa is recommended as a good groundcover replacement for sod. Photo Courtesy SCCF

For about a year now, some residents and business owners on Sanibel and Captiva have been perplexed by indigenous marsh rabbits that are experiencing a boom cycle on the islands.

We’ve got about eight in our yard and they’re eating all the grass,” says Beatrice Fulmer, who lives in the Donax Road neighborhood. “It looks totally denuded.”

Fulmer is thinking about replacing her grass with plants that rabbits won’t eat as a possible solution.

I’ve heard there are so many because the feral cats are all gone,” she adds, listing one of several theories about why there are so very many bunnies. Others speculate that rat poison used to kill off a boom in palm rats a couple years ago caused raptors, including hawks and owls to die off, which preyed on the rabbits.

Without any science to verify why there are so many rabbits, wildlife officials and researchers urge islanders to just relax and ride out nature’s course.

We are a sanctuary island. And, we’re just in a boom cycle with the rabbits. It’s not just here on Sanibel either. I live just off the island and see lots of rabbits there now, too,” says James Evans, director of natural resources for the city of Sanibel. “There isn’t a rabbit problem on the island. It’s a natural cycle.”

Evans quotes the Sanibel Plan as a reminder of what it means to live on Sanibel. “Sanibel is and shall remain a barrier island sanctuary, one in which a diverse population lives in harmony with the island's wildlife and natural habitats.”

Living in harmony with nature means adapting, as the ecosystem adapts. In 2011, coyotes first made their way to the islands, introducing a new predator to the rabbits.

We had a lack of predators for a long time. Now our bobcat population is doing well and we’ve got the coyotes. The rabbits may just be trying to keep up,” says Chris Lechowicz, director of the wildlife and habitat management program at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF).

No one is studying the rabbits so we don’t know for sure, but it may be related to the introduction of the coyotes,” he adds. “When the rabbits reach the carrying capacity of their population nature will correct itself. It always does.”

With talk of re-introducing feral cats to trapping and poisoning, some residents and condo associations are seeking short-term solutions that are likely adding to the population explosion.

Ned Bruha, the Wildlife Whisperer based on Pine Island, says he gets about a dozen calls a month from residents on Sanibel and Captiva seeking to get rid of rabbits that are eating their grass.

There isn’t a rabbit problem. There’s a landscape problem. That’s what I tell them,” says Bruha, who uses only non-lethal methods of wildlife removal. “With rabbits, I won’t trap them and remove them either because they’ll just replenish.”

Instead, he advocates for xeriscaping, i.e. landscaping with native plants that don’t require fertilizer or irrigation, and building fences when possible. But, he says that’s not what people want to hear. Only a couple callers out of a dozen a month are even interested in the solutions he offers.

I just relocated here in 2017 and I thought I was moving to a place where I’d feel a warm bunny-hugging glow across everyone’s hearts, but people just don’t want to deal with it. They just want to trap them and some people are using rat poison to illegally poison them,” he says.

From a wildlife and habitat management perspective, Lechowicz says the best way to handle the boom, which he started getting calls about last winter, is to not to be so reactive and to let nature run its course.

We got a lot of calls last winter and over the summer, but we haven’t gotten a call in a while,” he says. “People just have to be patient. Rabbits aren’t going to take over the island. Nature will go back into balance. It always does.”

At The Moorings on the east end of Sanibel, General Manager Kari Cordisco says they’ve lost thousands of dollars of sod to the little brown rabbits.

We have a 6-acre botanical garden – the only certified botanical garden on the island -- so we don’t do anything to get rid of them,” she says. “They’ve also eaten a lot of flowers and even bromeliads. And, they’re not scared at all. They’re very brazen.”

Safety in numbers can lead to bolder interaction with humans. Cordisco says the population at the 16-building condo association peaked about a year ago and has remained steady. She estimates that more than 300 rabbits come out at dawn and dusk to nibble away.

Based on the aesthetic of the landscaping at the resort, she says sod has seemed to be the only option.

We’ve not had another option, but we need to do something differently. We have bald spots all over the property. They’re eating the grass down to the nub,” she says.

At the SCCF’s Native Landscaping & Garden Center, intern Brittany Foster has learned a lot about native alternatives to sod in the short time she’s been on Sanibel.

We really like to replace sod here. We’ve had a few customers where we’ve gone to their homes and planted a bunch of natives instead of sod,” she says. “Natives are much better than sod, because sod requires a lot of irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides.”

Foster recommends mimosa or matchweed for the closest look to grass.

You can walk on it like grass. And, it doesn’t even need mowing,” she says. “Bunnies still like mimosa, but it’s still better than having sod. We also plant a variety of natives – small trees and wildflowers to replace sod.”

She also considers dune sunflower or beach verbena to be good flowering ground cover.

Charles Sobczak, author of Living Sanibel, predicted the bunny population’s explosion as a reaction to predation in a 2017 column in the Santiva Chronicle.

The city of Sanibel’s vegetation committee released their recommendations for landscaping solutions last spring in this press release, titled “No Bunnies’ Business.”

The hierarchy of values in the Sanibel Vision Statement further articulates reasons to relax and let the rabbits co-exist in plentitude.

This three-part statement of the community's vision of its future is hierarchy; one in which the dominant principle is Sanibel's sanctuary quality. Sanibel shall be developed as a community only to the extent to which it retains and embraces this quality of sanctuary. Sanibel will serve as attraction only to the extent to which it retains its desired qualities as sanctuary and community.”

Read more about living on a sanctuary island at https://www.mysanibel.com/City-Council/Sanibel-Vision-Statement.