Six years after an emergency roundup to rescue the species from the brink of extinction, nearly two-dozen endangered pygmy rabbits are headed back to their native shrub-steppe habitat in north-central Washington.
The pygmy rabbits scheduled for release back into the wild later this month are the offspring of a captive-breeding effort involving the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Washington State University, the Oregon Zoo in Portland and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park near Eatonville.
Weather permitting, about 23 pygmy rabbits will be released on a state wildlife area in Douglas County. The rabbits will be placed in artificial burrows for cover until they dig their own burrows, and will be equipped with tiny radio telemetry transmitters around their necks, to allow biologists to monitor their movements.
“We’re committed to preventing the loss of the pygmy rabbit from our state's diverse wildlife heritage,” said WDFW Director Jeff Koenings. “Extinction is not an option.”
In the half-dozen years since the rabbits were collected for captive breeding, efforts have been made to protect habitat for pygmy rabbits.
While public lands will be the core areas for release of the rabbits, nearby private property owners also are important to the rabbit recovery effort.
“The re-introduction of the pygmy rabbit is an excellent example of private and public partnerships in action, “said Ren Lohoefener, USFWS regional director. “By working together we are pulling this species back from the brink of extinction.”
More than 70 pygmy rabbits will remain in the captive breeding program to provide animals for future releases.
The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) is the country's smallest native rabbit and the only one to dig its own burrows. It was listed as a state endangered species in 1993. By 2001, Washington’s pygmy rabbit population had plummeted to fewer than 40 animals in the Sagebrush Flat area of Douglas County. In 2003 the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit population was federally listed as an endangered species.
As mandated by state law, WDFW wrote a pygmy rabbit recovery plan in 1995, following state listing of the species. The current re-introduction is part of the implementation of that plan.
WDFW biologists captured 16 of the last remaining Columbia Basin rabbits in 2001 and 2002. Captive breeding was begun in 2002.
Although wildlife biologists originally aimed to rear rabbits solely from Columbia Basin stock, that effort was unsuccessful. Biologists believe the rabbits’ failure to thrive may be due in part to genetic inbreeding that occurred as rabbit numbers dwindled over time in the wild. In 2003, with approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Washington pygmy rabbits were crossbred with Idaho pygmy rabbits.
“We tried to breed rabbits solely from Columbia Basin stock, but they did not produce enough healthy offspring to allow for re-establishment into the wild,” said WDFW Biologist Dave Hays.
The rabbits being released back into native habitat have approximately 75 percent Columbia Basin ancestry, Hays said. The percentage of Columbia Basin genes in the pygmy rabbit population could increase in future years as additional animals in captivity with a higher percentage of Columbia Basin parentage are re-introduced to the wild, said Ken Warheit, WDFW geneticist.
For more information on the pygmy rabbit recovery effort see WDFW’s website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/diversty/soc/pygmy_rabbit/ or the USFWS website at http://www.fws.gov/easternwashington/pygmy%20rabbit.htm.
NEWS MEDIA PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES: On-site coverage of activities associated with the scheduled March 13 pygmy rabbit release is available only by contacting WDFW Public Information Officer Madonna Luers (509-892-7853) by 5 p.m., March 9. To inquire about photo opportunities at the three rearing sites contact:
- Dennis Brown, 509-335-2930 or Kathy Barnard, 509-335-2806, WSU
- Bill LaMarche, Oregon Zoo, 503-220-2448
- Cherilyn Williams, Northwest Trek, 360-832-7189