Rabbit Advocacy Animal Matters


The Pygmy Rabbit is the smallest leporid in North America, with mean adult weights from 375 to about 500 grams (0.8 to 1.1 pounds), and a body length from 23.5 to 29.5 centimeters (9¼ to 11½ inches); females are slightly larger than males. The pygmy rabbit is distinguishable from other leporids by its small size, short ears, gray color, small hind legs, and lack of white fur on the tail. They are very timid animals, not prone to travel large distances or cross open spaces without cover from predators.

Columbia Pygmy Rabbits released into the wild

November 8, 2006 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.

Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits

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.

Update from HeraldNet.com

A program to breed endangered
Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits likely will end this year. Chris Warren oversees the pygmy rabbit recovery effort for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says efforts in 2010 will shift from saving local genetics to building a population in the wild made up of crossbred and imported rabbits from Idaho.

There are no known
Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits left in the wild. The last purebred rabbit in captivity died last year. Genetically speaking, Warren says the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is now extinct.
(January 22, 2009)

The last-ditch attempt to save the federally protected rabbits from extinction has cost about $250,000 a year since it began in 2001.

Information from Dr. Steve Herman

This may be our best current example of a subspecies (”species”, by ESA definition) being stomped into extinction by Public Grazing. The last place where Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits were found was Sagebrush Flat, which was that last large hunk of deep-soiled sagebrush in Washington.  When it became obvious that this was the last place this burrowing rabbit survived, the area was “managed” by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. I had worked for years trying to get the cows off, because the grazing clearly was at odds with the rabbits (trampling burrows and eating grasses and forbs necessary for reproduction).  Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists championed the cows, one of them claiming, “Steve, we’re concerned if we lose the cows we’ll lose the rabbits.”

So the cowheads got together, formed a Coordinated Resource Management Committee and planned for more grazing.  The WDFW bought the acreage from WDNR for a huge amount of money, then increased the grazing in a program that included bringing water to portions of the area that had been beyond the range of cattle earlier.  New wells were drilled, new water distribution systems were installed, and the number of cattle was increased. The mantra of the CRM Committee was, “The cows and the rabbits have been together for a hundred years, so there’s no doubt that they’re compatible”.

It wasn’t long before I began getting calls from frantic WDFW personnel on the ground (these were essentially “anonymous”) reporting collapsed active burrows, scorched earth between sagebrush plants, and other insults in the relatively small area where the rabbits were holding out. But the WDFW had instituted an elaborate “monitoring” scheme that conveniently sidestepped reality, and their “data” showed “no impact” from the cows.

When the rabbits were down to fewer than 20, the decision was made to take them all into captivity. Of course this was greeted with enthusiasm and confidence that the danger was over; it was just a matter of time before the problem would be solved.  Such is the glamour of captive breeding programs in our day. Everyone loves them, in part because “we” are going to solve “nature’s problems”.

The captive breeding program was botched from the beginning. The rabbits sent to the Portland Zoo were fed nothing but sagebrush for at least months (science was never part of this program or the whole Pygmy Rabbit equation) when they should have been fed grasses and forbs as well. (I know this because some of my ex-students were hired to make the trip to eastern Washington to gather the sagebrush and care for the rabbits). I have asked repeatedly for the “lacking genetic diversity” data and no one has provided it.

Mr. Warren should not have allowed the intergrades that were produced by captive breeding to be defined as Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits. The last known one of those died a couple of years ago. That should have ended the funding for the captive breeding program.

Well, there were many warm and fuzzy press releases, but the captive breeding attempt could never have substituted for the application of responsibility that would have combined conservation with science, and no one was willing to act responsibly.  Grazing was not the only thing that contributed to the extirpation of the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit, but it was a very major contributor (published scientific papers demonstrate this).

Science is seldom followed in these endangered species “interventions”.  Politics trumps science - and conservation.

We need to remember the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit as an example of a form lost in part to the the insanity of public grazing.

Even today, sagebrush is mowed, chained, burned and otherwise manipulated on vast expanses of public lands, to be replaced with more productive cattle forage - mostly non-native grasses largely useless to wildlife.  Other human activities including development, energy transmission lines,  roads, fences and others isolate small populations of pygmy rabbits from each-other.  Not wanting, or able given exposure to predators, to cross open ground, pygmy rabbits are are unable to maintain genetic diversity and the number and success of offspring is largely limited by inbreeding.  Fences and posts provide height for predator birds to prey on pygmy rabbits - height that otherwise does not exist in the vast Sagebrush Sea, and livestock crush pygmy rabbit burrows.

Although efforts to preserve the Columbia Basin gene have been supplemented with Idaho pygmy rabbits, the Idaho pygmy rabbit is also imperiled across nearly all of its range.  Efforts are underway to gain protection for Idaho pygmy rabbits, Western Watersheds Project recently won a lawsuit against the Bush Interior Department forcing a new 90-day Finding which prompted a Status Review, currently underway.

Unfortunately, things aren’t looking good for pygmy rabbits in the immediate future.  Mega wind-farms and energy transmission lines planned for development across public landscapes are increasingly threatening some of the last, best pygmy rabbit habitats in the West. Information posted on blogs such as Grazing and Livestock, Wildlife Habitat, and Endangered Species Act.

May 22, 2012 Bunnies find unexpected success in the wild