OGDEN -- Utah's abundant sagebrush provides food and shelter to pygmy rabbits, and one Weber State University senior has done her part to save the sagebrush and the tiny rabbits' world.
Jennifer Schmalz, a WSU zoology and botany major who graduates Friday, first learned about the at-risk species in 2010, when the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources began a project to learn about the pygmy rabbit populations on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property near Woodruff. The tiny Utah town is about 33 miles northwest of Evanston, Wyo.
Schmalz, a Riverdale resident, now 26, worked closely with the division, which had awarded a grant to two Weber State professors for research to help determine future use of the land.
The main question was whether the BLM should take action to thin the sagebrush, which might lower the fire hazard but also could threaten the population of pygmy rabbits, the smallest variety of the species, weighing a pound or less as adults.
Pygmy rabbits are found primarily in the Great Basin and Intermountain West. They typically burrow in deep soils below tall, dense sagebrush or rabbitbrush.
"They're losing habitat due to the use of the land, and maybe the invasion of non-native species such as cheat grass that take over and alter the sagebrush community," Schmalz said.
Pygmy rabbits' diet is 90 percent sagebrush in the summer, 100 percent in the winter, Schmalz said. Research for her subsequent senior thesis convinced Schmalz that rabbits choose to make their burrows under taller-than-average sagebrush plants, but density of plant groupings did not seem to factor into site selection.
So any plan of spreading a general herbicide would destroy too much pygmy rabbit habitat, and any plan to target only smaller sagebrush plants would be cost- and labor-prohibitive.
Schmalz said the BLM plan to thin sagebrush on the rangeland that surrounds Woodruff has been shelved, at least for the time being, because of study findings.
"I hope my research will help protect the pygmy rabbits," said Schmalz, who hopes to continue her research as a graduate student. She hasn't picked her university yet, but said it will be in the West, which she loves.
Schmalz admits that the pygmy rabbits have a "cute factor," and she wants them to be around for future generations.
"I think it's awesome that we have the smallest of something right here in Utah," she said.
Schmalz also distinguished herself when she co-wrote a wildlife management plan for Fort Buenaventura that was subsequently adopted by the Weber County Parks and Recreation Department.
Sam Zeveloff, WSU zoology professor and department chairman, called Schmalz "a real go-getter."
"She brings a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm," he said. "She brings an inquisitive mind. She has great field skills in terms of stamina and being able to do things under difficult conditions. There is a lot of youthful energy, and she brings a pure love of the subject, which is critical to anybody making headway in any discipline."
Schmalz said she first considered physical therapy as a career goal, but found she had a strong interest in protecting animals and their plant habitats.
"My parents laughed because since I was a child, I had loved the outdoors, and it had gotten me into trouble," Schmalz said. "We lived on 5 acres, and when I was 7 or 8, I came for dinner with a cup of caterpillars and put them by the windowsill."
It took parents Clay and Darla Schmalz a while to notice the 20 or so crawlers inching their way along the interior window and walls.
"There were caterpillars all over the place," Jennifer Schmalz recalled with a laugh.
Schmalz said she's grateful to her parents for their support, to her classmates and fellow students for their research help, and to her professors for their interest in her and their extra effort on her behalf.
"My zoology and botany professors were always willing to help," she said. "They want you to succeed. Since there aren't a huge amount of people here, you get a lot of one-on-one. You can work hard and stand out, and they try to get people to go to graduate school. To me, it just shows how much they care about education."