The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is a genetically distinct sub-population of pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis), the smallest rabbit in North America. By 2002, only 16 pygmy rabbits remained in Washington. The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is listed as endangered federally and in Washington state.
Once on the verge of extinction, these kitten-sized rabbits are beginning to repopulate their historic range thanks to the Oregon Zoo and its conservation partners.
Disease, wildfire, a loss of genetic diversity and predation by raptors, coyotes and weasels threaten pygmy rabbit populations.
Over the last 160 years, sagebrush-covered lands have been converted to agricultural use or planted in exotic bunch grass to improve livestock forage.
Pygmy rabbit breeding program
In 2002, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife asked the Oregon Zoo to develop a breeding program with the goal of reintroducing rabbits to their wild habitat.
The Oregon Zoo was the first zoo in the world to successfully breed pygmy rabbits.
The breeding program commenced when the remaining 16 Washington pygmy rabbits were placed in programs at the Oregon Zoo, Washington State University and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Washington, in collaboration with the WDFW and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
- In 2004, zoo-raised offspring were crossbred with wild Idaho pygmy rabbits to strengthen the Columbia basin gene pool and increase the chances of a successful recovery.
- In spring 2007, 20 captive-bred rabbits were released into Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area near Ephrata in central Washington. By fall of 2007, none had remained in the wild, some were recaptured and others were predated upon. Many lessons were learned from this experience.
- In 2011, more than 50 rabbits were released. These rabbits were implanted with microchips and/or fitted with radio collars. They were placed in a small-gauge wire mesh enclosure within a larger 10-acre wildlife area. The smaller area encourages breeding, transitions them to their new surroundings and keeps them safe from predators. Both areas are ringed with tall wire fencing.
- In 2011, for the first time in more than a decade, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit bred and successfully gave birth in its historic range. A litter of kits was confirmed in the 6-acre pre-release enclosure at Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area.
The zoo's 12-year recovery effort concluded in July 2012, when it released its last 14 breeding rabbits and their offspring at the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in eastern Washington. In 2013, the Oregon Zoo and Northwest Trek were honored with the AZA's North American Conservation Award for their collaborative Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit project. The zoo continues to actively participate in pygmy rabbit conservation efforts.
Find out how an Oregon Zoo study examining mate choice in pygmy rabbits may help to advance other endangered species programs.