OLYMPIA– The federal government's announcement today designating Washington's pygmy rabbit as an endangered species comes as state biologists continue their efforts to save the rabbit through a joint captive-breeding project.
The state's pygmy rabbits, listed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered in Benton, Grant, Adams, Lincoln and Douglas counties in the Columbia Basin, are on the brink of extinction in the state. Fewer than a dozen of the animals are known to remain in the wild.
Loss and fragmentation of native shrub-steppe habitat in eastern Washington is believed to be largely responsible for the decline of the pygmy rabbit, which was listed by the state as an endangered species in 1993.
"The federal protection listing recognizes the dire situation facing this species and reinforces our recovery efforts," said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Director Jeff Koenings.
The declining pygmy rabbit population prompted WDFW scientists and Washington State University (WSU) to launch an emergency recovery effort. The project included capturing some of the last remaining pygmy rabbits in an effort to breed them in captivity and eventually release their offspring back into the wild. The captive breeding project also involves Oregon Zoo in Portland and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park near Eatonville. The project is detailed in WDFW's electronic science magazine, which can be accessed on the Internet.
Scientists plan to breed the rabbits in the spring, and hope to release the resulting off-spring into the wild in the summer of 2003, said David Hays, the WDFW wildlife biologist who heads the recovery effort. Before the releases occur, scientists will test release techniques with Idaho pygmy rabbits, which are more plentiful than those in Washington. The test releases are necessary to perfect techniques and ensure optimum survival when the Washington rabbits are released.