The Oregon Zoo is working to bring the endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit back to the Northwest. On the brink of extinction, these rabbits may be beginning to repopulate their traditional range.
The pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) is the smallest rabbit in North America, weighing less than 1 pound.
A different species from cottontails and jackrabbits, it:
- lives only in the Great Basin of the western United States
- is the only North American rabbit to dig burrows
- thrives in tall, dense stands of big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) growing on deep, loose soil
- eats mostly sagebrush leaves.
Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits are a genetically distinct sub population of pygmy rabbits unique to Eastern Washington.
Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit populations have declined due to:
- Loss of habitat. Over the last 160 years, sagebrush-covered lands have been converted to agricultural use or planted in exotic bunch grass to improve livestock forage.
- disease, wildfire and predation by raptors, coyotes and weasels.
By 2002, only 16 pygmy rabbits remained in Washington. The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is listed as endangered federally and in Washington state.
Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit recovery
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 zoo agreed, and the remaining 16 Washington pygmy rabbits were placed in breeding programs at the Oregon Zoo, Washington State University and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Washington. Breeding is in collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
In 2003, the Oregon Zoo became the first zoo in the world to successfully breed pygmy rabbits. Subsequently 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.
Challenges, successes and ongoing recovery work
Conservation scientists have persevered.
- 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 have been 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.
- The new arrangement seems to be working: in 2011, for the first time in more than 10 years, 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.