Endangered Rabbits Get a Second Chance

If the meek shall inherit the Earth, then the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit can rest easy.

The tiny, endangered critter has had a rough time of it. In the past decade, its population was nearly wiped out by habitat destruction, inbreeding and disease. As the smallest species of rabbit in North America, it's easy prey for coyotes and weasels in Eastern Washington, where The Nature Conservancy works.

Now, a team of state agencies is giving the pygmy rabbit another chance. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have been working with Washington State University, the Oregon Zoo and Northwest Trek to breed pygmy rabbits in captivity. This spring they began reintroducing kits into the wild.

It’s a tenuous project; a trial reintroduction in 2007 failed. But this attempt is marked by hope. This spring, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit successfully bred in its natural habitat for the first time in years.

“We try to celebrate the little victories,” said Dr. Penny Becker, WDFW scientist.”It’s a very big challenge, this project.”

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is a distinctive population segment. Its dwindling numbers have created issues with inbreeding, so scientists have improvised, interbreeding in captivity with Idaho pygmy rabbits and bringing in wild rabbits from Oregon, Nevada and Utah.

Kits are about the size of a tennis ball. They’re released gradually, starting out in small enclosures before being left on their own in the wild.

So far, WDFW has released about 50 kits into the wild. Twenty rabbits are currently being kept in outdoor enclosures on Sagebrush Flats for breeding.

If all goes well, another reintroduction may occur on nearby Conservancy property in Eastern Washington. "Conservancy land is close by and provides a good corridor to other habitats," Becker said.

Your support can help preserve and maintain the habitat that Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits and other wildlife need to thrive.

“These rabbits are endangered mostly because of human activity,” Penny said. “It’s our responsibility to try to recover them as much as possible.”


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