EPHRATA, Wash. – Snow crunches underneath researchers’ boots. The group of three is hiking through central Washington’s Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area.
They’ve wandered nearly 18,000 acres since the first snow fell, searching for pygmy rabbit tracks.
Biologist Jon Gallie helps search for burrows, as Penny Becker collects pygmy rabbit DNA samples.
Gallie calls out from a pile of sagebrush, “I’ve got another burrow system over here.”
“Nice, it definitely suggests multiple rabbits,” Becker responds.
Becker is leading the reintroduction effort for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Biologists released more than 100 pygmy rabbits into the wild this summer. Now, as temperatures drop and snow falls, they’re out tracking the rabbits to find out how many of the endangered species have survived.
“Winter is so important because it’s really, really conspicuous to find tracks this time of year. Whereas in summertime, with nothing on the ground, you could walk right past burrows and never detect them,” Becker says.
Biologists collected DNA samples from the rabbits they released this summer. Now they can compare those samples with what they find in the wild.
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“We’ve used genetics using fecal pellets to be able to understand which individuals are here and which ones are using which burrows,” Becker says.
In 2001, Washington’s pygmy rabbits were nearly extinct. They were federally listed as endangered in 2003.
Biologists tried breeding them at the Oregon Zoo, Washington State University and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, west of Mount Rainier. But the pygmy rabbits didn’t like to breed in captivity.
Now, it seems the tiny rabbits are doing well. Becker spots a rabbit as he rushes from his burrow.
“You can see it. You can still see it’s head,” she whispers as she points through the sprawling sagebrush.
So far biologists have found around 90 burrows this winter. Becker says the DNA samples have shown more than 40 individual rabbits.
That’s a high survival rate for pygmy rabbits. Lots of animals prey on them, like badgers, weasels and owls.
Becker says some of the DNA they’ve collected is from offspring of parents released in 2011.
“We are very excited. I think we definitely expected to see some rabbits there, but this is a much greater success than we thought we’d see this year,” Becker says.
Becker says they’ll continue to rear and release juvenile pygmy rabbits in the wild. New to the program this summer: they’ll also release adult rabbits.