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Byline: Steve Goldstein
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the first reported occurrence of Rabbit Calicivirus Disease in the United States was confirmed April 7, 2000. The disease was found in a backyard rabbitry of 27 pet rabbits in west central Iowa. The origin of the outbreak is unknown. As of April 6, 25 of the 27 rabbits had died. The remaining two were euthanized as a control measure. The outbreak appears to be confined to this single rabbitry. There have been no introductions of rabbits onto the premises in the last two years, and no rabbits have left the farm since August 1999. The value of the U.S. rabbit industry is estimated at $25 million a year, including rabbits raised for research and the sale of rabbit meat and pelts. This does not include rabbits that are pets or show rabbits.
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The ground rises quickly from Cromwell, flowing upland from Bendigo Station to Ardgour.
A swath of almost treeless grassland sweeps into the foothills of the Dunstan Mountains, land veined by creeks that 140 years ago teemed with miners panning for gold. It's rangeland now. As the eye tracks up the hill, a dog barks. The hill, improbably, moves. There is a shuddering shift in the gray-brown mass that's now ... what? ... writhing. Thousands upon thousands of rabbits, a mountain of them, are put off their feed by the barking dog _ and they're running. The land crawls, festers with them. A shivery sort of sight.
Chapter 1: Hanging the Drapes
Sometimes a poke in the ribs in a crowded room signifies nothing, but to Donald Young it would come to mean the beginning of the wildest time of his life.
Young was just one among scores of furious High Country sheep farmers crammed into the conference center at the Golden Gate Lodge in the provincial town of Cromwell that July night in 1997. It was frigid outside in the New Zealand winter, but the temperature in the room had risen perceptibly with every angry word from men breathing betrayal. The jackass wanker bureaucrats in the capital city of Wellington had rejected a plan to bring the rabbit virus into New Zealand. A 56-year-old second-generation farmer, Young was spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to control the voracious rabbits on the sheep station of 17,000 rolling acres in nearby Lowburn he'd inherited from his father.
Rabbits here on the South Island do not fit the cuddly image of their flop-eared, cottontailed cousins in America. In their relentless consumption of tussock grassland, rabbits constitute a bigger threat to sheep farming than any drought or flood or dip in wool prices.
Still, Young was one of the more fortunate farmers in that room. He was spending a pittance on pest control compared with some of his High Country neighbors in Central Otago and the Mackenzie Basin, New Zealand's premier sheep country. His neighbor Peter Anderson was on the verge of losing his farm to the rabbits, who were costing him a minimum of $100,000 a year in New Zealand dollars, or …