OLYMPIA– State wildlife scientists are joining forces with Washington State University (WSU) and several Northwest zoos in an emergency effort to save an unusual rabbit species on the brink of extinction in Washington.
The pygmy rabbit recovery project, which hinges on an effort to breed the few remaining rabbits in captivity and release their off-spring back into the wild, is described in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's (WDFW) on-line science magazine on the Internet.
With Washington's pygmy rabbit population hovering on the brink of extinction, WDFW coordinated the emergency captive breeding project, in which scientists captured most of the few remaining rabbits in eastern Washington last May and transported them to a facility at WSU, where they will be bred and their offspring reared for eventual re-release into the wild.
The goal of the breeding effort, which is expected to last at least five years, is to produce 100 or more pygmy rabbits each year for release.
The country's smallest native rabbit, the pygmy rabbit is about the size of a large human hand when fully grown. It depends heavily on sagebrush in eastern Washington's native shrub-steppe habitat. But as that land has been converted to agricultural use, pygmy rabbit numbers have gone into a precipitous decline. Once thriving throughout five Columbia Basin counties, the species now is found only at one site in Sagebrush Flat near Ephrata.
The Washington pygmy rabbit has been listed as a state endangered species since 1993, and is a candidate for federal protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The animals' situation in Washington is especially grave, because it is believed that the state harbors a genetically unique population of the rabbits.
Before scientists launched the captive breeding effort in Washington they captured more common Idaho pygmy rabbits so they could study and perfect rearing techniques. Among other challenges in the delicate project is the need to help teach juvenile pygmy rabbits being reared in captivity how to survive in the wild once they are released.
The WDFW electronic science magazine, the first of its kind produced by a state natural resource agency, showcases the work of WDFW scientists in articles, interviews, field notes, research summaries and interactive questions and answers. Recent magazine articles recap lynx research in the Okanogan, a cougar tracking and education project near Cle Elum, investigations into the sharp decline in herring in the Cherry Point area near Bellingham and the role of underwater preserves in bolstering Puget Sound marine species.