What's with all the rabbits in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks? 'Perfect habitat,' experts say

The flourishing population of eastern cottontail rabbits in city limits can be a problem for lawns, gardens and trees

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An eastern cottontail rabbit does its best to be concealed Monday, April 11, 2022, in south Grand Forks.
Korrie Wenzel / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – They might look cute, those little brown bunnies that seem to be just about everywhere in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks these days, but the flourishing population of eastern cottontail rabbits in city limits can also be a problem for lawns, gardens and trees.

Aside from putting up barriers to keep rabbits at bay, options are limited. And those little brown “presents” they leave everywhere definitely aren’t chocolate Easter eggs.

“Rabbits in town have the perfect habitat,” said Jim Job, Grand Forks outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “They're protected from hunting and besides being chased by a dog from time to time, it’s pretty favorable habitat for them – lots of greens and lots of bird feeders.”

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Jim Job, outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Grand Forks.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Calls about rabbits nearly always involve questions about keeping them off plants and out of gardens, Job says.

“We do get quite a bit of rabbit depredation throughout the city,” Job said. “Somebody trying to plant trees or things of that nature. We don’t get any calls like, there’s too many or anything, besides when they’re causing damage.”


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Some of the best wildlife habitat in northeast North Dakota is near or between the airport and Grand Forks Air Force Base. That increases the potential for bird strikes at both sites.

The best thing homeowners can do, Job says, is put chicken wire or some other kind of rabbit-proof fencing around plants and trees. The fence should be at least 3 feet high and pinned down, Job says, or even buried a few inches so the rabbits can’t squeeze in from underneath.

Dave Lambeth, a Grand Forks homeowner, said he and his wife, Cec, combat the rabbit problem by placing wire cages around young plants in their flower and vegetable gardens.

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Dave Lambeth of Grand Forks leads a birdwatching excursion Tuesday, May 21, 2019, at Sertoma Park in Grand Forks. As gardeners, Lambeth says he and his wife, Cec, use wire cages to protect young plants from the abundance of eastern cottontail rabbits in city limits.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

“Rabbits like to go after the tender shoots, but lose interest as the plants – tulips for example – mature,” Lambeth said. Liquid sprays also work well but have to be applied often, he says.

“The other thing I would note is (rabbits) can really go after shrubs during the winter,” Lambeth said. “They girdle some stems by eating the bark. They will nip smaller twigs and eat the whole thing. They do this even with barberries that have thorns.”

Animal control options

RaeAnn Drewlow, community service officer for the Grand Forks Police Department, said she gets “a few calls throughout the year” about rabbit issues in city limits, mainly from people wondering what they can do.

The department can trap and transfer problem rabbits, Drewlow says, and also has live traps people can borrow. Enticing rabbits into the traps is tricky when they eat grass and other plants around them, she says.

“We do allow people to use traps,” Drewlow said. “I know trapping rabbits is hard because if you’ve ever driven in the morning through some of the residential areas, there’s a ton of rabbits out.”

A city ordinance requires that traps are checked every 12 hours, she says.


“We don’t want people setting traps and then forgetting about them and having an animal die in there,” Drewlow said. “That would definitely be cruel to have that happen.”

Old sheds or other buildings can be attractive not only to rabbits, but to less-desirable critters such as skunks, Drewlow says. Patching the holes and removing places for rabbits to hide will often get them to move to safer cover, she says.

Shooting problem rabbits most definitely is not a control option because discharging a firearm in city limits is illegal both in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. In East Grand Forks, discharging a firearm in city limits is a misdemeanor that could result in a fine of up to $1,000, a jail sentence of up to 90 days, or both, East Grand Forks Police Chief Mike Hedlund said.

In North Dakota, discharging a firearm in city limits is a Class B misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail, a $1,500 fine or both.

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Robert Seabloom, UND professor emeritus of biology and author of "Mammals of North Dakota" first and second editions.
Contributed / Robert Seabloom

Even if they don’t get caught, homeowners who skirt the law and shoot the occasional backyard bunny with a pellet gun or archery equipment probably won’t solve the problem, said Robert Seabloom, a UND professor emeritus of biology and mammalogy expert.

Seabloom, of Grand Forks, taught Mammalogy, Vertebrate Natural History and other wildlife courses at UND for 35 years and has written two books on North Dakota mammals: “Mammals of North Dakota” in 2011 and “Mammals of North Dakota Second Edition” in 2020.

“You can try killing them off, but you’re just creating a vacuum to draw some more in,” Seabloom said. “They have about four litters a year. You aren’t going to keep up with that.”

A professor emeritus in the UND Biology Department, Robert Seabloom updated the book, published by North Dakota State University Press, in 2019 because of rapidly occurring changes in North Dakota mammal species.


Natural controls

Abundant as they are, rabbits in city limits aren’t without predators. Cats, dogs, raptors and even the occasional coyote will take a rabbit if given the opportunity

“In town, we have lots of Cooper’s hawks, and I do get calls on that, where a hawk has eaten a rabbit in someone’s backyard,” Job of the Game and Fish Department said. “Well, that’s nature. If you don’t want to look at nature, don’t look outside. Walk away if you don’t like seeing the cruelty of Mother Nature.”

Lambeth, the Grand Forks homeowner and gardener, said he can’t say whether rabbits are becoming more abundant, but he and his wife regularly saw two rabbits in their yard through much of the winter. That changed about a month ago, when they saw a great-horned owl in a neighbor’s spruce tree clutching a rabbit.

“That begs the question of whether the owls got both rabbits, or the rabbits concluded our yard was not a safe place and moved elsewhere,” he said.

Hard to say how many

There’s no way to quantify the rabbit populations in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, and very little research has been conducted on eastern cottontails in either North Dakota or Minnesota, Seabloom, the retired UND mammalogy professor, said.

As a longtime Grand Forks resident, Seabloom says it seems as if rabbits in city limits have existed “in fair numbers” in recent years, which could be a function of weather.

“If you have a heavy snow winter, they’ll like that because they burrow into it,” Seabloom said. “What I think can be devastating for them is if you have a cold, wet spring because those young are really vulnerable to that.”

No doubt, the rabbits can be a nuisance, he says.

“People get so darn frustrated because (the rabbits) get in their gardens,” Seabloom said. “They’re versatile. If you look at the habitat requirements, they adapt to a wide variety of habitats, they like brushy areas and the town of Grand Forks has the (English) coulee, they’ve got the river, and people like to plant trees and gardens.

“I think we’ve created a lot of habitat for them.”

Added Drewlow, the community service officer: “I know the population seems like it has been up there, recently.”

More about the eastern cottontail

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An eastern cottontail rabbit prepares to take shelter in March 2022 under a Grand Forks deck.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

In North Dakota, eastern cottontail rabbits generally are viewed as an incidental species – with a year-round season and no bag limit – but they’re the No. 1 game animal in the U.S. That’s especially true in the East and South.

Hunters in Minnesota during the 1999-2000 hunting season shot about 60,000 cottontails, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources . Minnesota has a season on cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares that begins in mid-September and continues through the end of February. There’s a daily limit of 10 and a possession limit of 20 (combined) for the two species.

A few other eastern cottontail tidbits:

  • According to Vernon Bailey’s “Biological Survey of North Dakota,” published in 1926, there were no eastern cottontails in North Dakota until about 1900, and by 1915, the state was populated with them. The trend appeared to coincide with white settlement, similar to what happened with prairie chickens.
  • Besides the eastern cottontail, the desert cottontail can be found in western North Dakota. The mountain cottontail, a third species, has disappeared from the Badlands.
  • Eastern cottontails are between 12 and 16 inches long and weigh 2 to 3 pounds.
  • A female cottontail may give birth to a litter of 4 to 6 young and then be bred again within hours after giving birth. She’ll have another litter 3 weeks later.
  • Baby cottontails leave the nest after 3 weeks.
  • Cottontails eat green plants, twigs, tree bark and sometimes their own droppings.
  • In Minnesota, the DNR says about 80% of Minnesota’s cottontail population dies every year from weather, predators or disease. The remaining 20% easily repopulate the landscape.
  • Cottontails are nervous animals that may die of shock if handled or caged.
  • Gourmet chefs favor cottontail meat, which they cook fried, in stews or braised with herbs and vegetables.

– Sources: Minnesota DNR; Robert Seabloom, UND professor emeritus of biology and author of “Mammals of North Dakota” first and second editions

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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