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Environment | Flora and Fauna

Wild Breeding Jump-Starts Pygmy Rabbit Recovery

EPHRATA, Wash. – It’s been a decade-long struggle for Washington’s pygmy rabbits.

The palm-sized bunnies have been all but wiped out from the state. And efforts to breed them in captivity were failing. So biologists are now attempting to breed the rabbits in their natural habitat — where pygmy rabbits are finally doing what rabbits are supposed to do.

It’s an unseasonably cold and rainy day in central Washington’s Sagebrush Flats.

Biologist Chad Eidson is soaking wet and caked in mud. He’s leading a group of seven scientists and volunteers through a six fenced-in acres. (Another 10-acre enclosure is a minutes walk away.) The group is scanning the sagebrush for baby pygmy rabbits.

“There goes one down there. That’s a good one,” Eidson points to the fence line.

Biologists are hoping to capture 20 bunnies to tag and release into the wild. That’s a lot for a species that was all but extinct in the state.

A Rough 10 Years
For a decade, biologists tried to rear the species in the Oregon Zoo, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and Washington State University. But the pygmy rabbits didn’t like to breed in captivity. Their numbers dwindled, and they suffered from a lot of diseases.

During the middle of breeding season last year, biologists moved the rabbits to these semi-wild pens.

They’re guarded with electric wires and spikes on top of fence posts. That’s to keep North America’s smallest rabbit safe from predators like coyotes, badgers, weasels and birds of prey.

“They’re a pretty important prey species out here in the sagebrush,” says Penny Becker, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife research scientist.

‘There, over there!’
Becker is leading the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s pygmy rabbit reintroduction effort. She’s traipsing through the sagebrush, measuring each of the endangered animals volunteers catch.

Volunteers circle a rabbit burrow.

Capturing the tiny rabbits is not an easy task. They dart like ghosts from sagebrush to sagebrush, in a game of “catch me if you can.”

The group has a burrow surrounded. A rabbit tries to escape the circle of humans.

“He’s coming toward you.”

“There, over there!”

The rabbit-chasers shout back and forth as they try to make the bunny run to its home.

They collectively gasp as the rabbit finds a hole in their flank. “Alright, let’s head down towards that corner,” Eidson points. “Let’s give these ones a break. They’re winning.”

Capturing they pygmy rabbits involves “snaking” them out of their artificial burrows.

Once Eidson and the volunteers finally corral a rabbit into a burrow, they must capture it for tagging. This involves placing a dry-as-possible pillow case at one hole and running a plumbing snake attached to a tennis ball through the other hole.

“He’s in! He’s in!” The group cheers, as the rabbit is carted away for tagging.

What They’re Supposed to Do
Compared to previous years, the population is exploding in the wild. Becker had hoped for 60 babies this year. As of this day, Becker says, the rabbits had produced more than 115 babies, with about two months to go in breeding season.

“They’re finally doing what they’re supposed to, so we’re excited about that,” Becker laughs.

No one really knows what exactly caused the boom. Rocky Beach is with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says he’s lost sleep worrying about the pygmy rabbits.

“There’s an old saying, ‘If you can’t be good, be lucky.’ It’s a little bit of both in this instance. They’re not out from underneath the woods yet. That’s for sure,” Beach says.

Scientist Penny Becker and grad student Steph DeMay go over the rabbits’ weight.

This unexpected jump in numbers finally gives biologists room to experiment and gather real release data. Before, the numbers were so small that scientists could only make guesses.

Once these kits are measured and tagged, it’s off to the wild. Biologists are releasing the rabbits in “hard” and “soft” releases.

In hard releases, the rabbits are put directly into the wild. During soft releases, Becker says, rabbits are placed in small pens for a week.

“Then we’ll track the rabbits and see how they do,” Becker says. “See if one technique is better at making the kits survive a bit longer but also stay and reside in a particular location.”

Becker says this is the third release this year. She does the math in her head.

“Let me think… Fifty-one, and then we’ll release another 18 today… Yeah, so, after today, we will have released 69 kits so far this season,” Becker says.

Today is the hard release.

Off to the Wild
Volunteers hike through the brush. They carry blue crates packed with pygmy rabbits. Everyone keeps quiet to avoid scaring other rabbits away. Becker gives the marching orders.

“I’ll show you where your release site is,” she says.

At the first site she holds up one finger and mouths, “Who has release 1?”

“As you’re there, you’ll see some artificial burrows at your release site,” Becker says.

But they’re not always easy to find. Becker studies a handheld GPS looking for each burrow. A train of volunteers follows behind. She whispers, “There’s one right there.”

“You’ll get a piece of burlap,” Becker says, as her grad student shows off the sack with a flight attendant’s precision. “You put the burlap in one side of the artificial burrow. Put your rabbit in and put burlap on the other side.”

Pygmy rabbits are released into the wild, during a “hard” release.

Rocky Beach carefully lifts a tiny rabbit into its new burrow.

“Easy, easy, easy,” he whispers to the bunny.

Beach waits a few minutes for the baby to settle before removing the burlap and quietly walking away.

It’s now up to the rabbits to breed in the wild. If that’s successful, Becker says, researchers hope to figure out how to keep the rabbits in the area to continue breeding. But this is one step forward.