| Photo by John Marshall
The pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) is the smallest rabbit in North America. It is also the only rabbit to dig its own burrows, using the deep loamy soils of habitat dominated by sagebrush, which also makes up most of its diet.
For over 100,000 years pygmy rabbits have lived in the Columbia Basin in Washington and the Columbia Plateau and Great Basin of the western U.S. (Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming). The rabbits in the Columbia Basin have been isolated from the rest of the population for at least 10,000 years, which has led to genetic differences between the rabbits in Washington and the other states. Since the mid-1900's there has also been a loss of genetic diversity in Washington's isolated populations.
The pygmy rabbit was state listed as a threatened species in Washington in 1990 because of population and distribution declines due to habitat changes. It was reclassified as state endangered in 1993 as declines continued, and except for a remnant population on the state's Sagebrush Flats Wildlife Area, it was considered near extinct by 2001. The distinct population segment of the species known as the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit was listed in 2003 as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
A captive breeding program was initiated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2001 with the intent of eventually reintroducing rabbits to the wild. Keeping rabbits healthy and alive in captivity was so challenging that the first trial release attempt on Sagebrush Flats was not until 2007, and none of the 20 animals released survived beyond a year.
In Spring 2011, a collaborative recovery effort was renewed with the Oregon Zoo, Washington State University, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, USFWS and other state wildlife agencies. The recovery plan includes 1) translocating wild pygmy rabbits to Washington from other states to increase genetic diversity and numbers, 2) breeding pygmy rabbits in semi-wild conditions on the release site, and 3) releasing juvenile offspring of mixed lineage, and adult wild-caught pygmy rabbits from neighboring states.
Results from 2011 through 2014 efforts were encouraging for recovery of the species to the state. WDFW developed techniques for breeding wild and captive-bred pygmy rabbits in protected semi-wild enclosures on wildlife areas to increase numbers of individuals for release. From 2011 to 2013, biologists translocated 109 pygmy rabbits from Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Wyoming to the breeding enclosures in Douglas and Grant Counties, along with the remaining captive rabbits.
Over 1,300 kits have been produced in the enclosures since 2011. This high production allowed for the release of over 1,200 rabbits to the wild on Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in Douglas County from 2011 through 2014. Due to this success, beginning in 2015, pygmy rabbits are being released into a second recovery area located on the private land of a project supporter and The Nature Conservancy Preserve in the Beezley Hills in Grant County.
Released pygmy rabbits are closely monitored to collect data on breeding, habitat use, survival, mortalities and other factors to modify reintroduction techniques and adaptively manage the newly-formed population.
Common Mountain cottontail rabbits are sometimes misidentified as pygmy rabbits but there are several ways to tell the difference between the two species.