The pygmy rabbit is one of only two North American rabbits known to dig its own burrows. Burrows are used for thermoregulation and safety from predators. Specialized natal burrows are excavated separate from residential burrows.
Big sagebrush is the primary food source, comprising 90 percent of the winter diet, but grasses and forbs are also eaten in spring and summer. Activity occurs throughout the year, and pygmy rabbits may be active any time of day or night (although most activity occurs during the twilight hours).
Breeding extends from February to July, and females have two to four litters per year with up to six kits per litter.
Predators include weasels, coyotes, American badgers, hawks, owls, and other carnivorous mammals and birds.
Description and Range
The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit species in North America. It can grow up to 11 inches long and weigh up to 16 ounces. It has a slate gray coloration that can turn brown during the summer months.
Its ears are short and its tail is nearly invisible. Adult females are slightly larger than adult males.
Pygmy rabbits inhabit sagebrush-dominated areas of the Great Basin in portions of Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The Washington population has been isolated from the remainder of the species' range for at least 10,000 years, and possibly as long as 40,000 to 115,000 years.
Museum specimen records and reliable sight records show that pygmy rabbits once occupied sagebrush habitat in Benton, Adams, Grant, Lincoln, and Douglas counties. Paleontological evidence suggest the species prehistorically had a broader distribution that also included Franklin, Kittitas, Chelan, Yakima, and Whitman counties.
By 2001, only one population remained at Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in Douglas County. Semi-wild breeding in large enclosures is presently ongoing in central Washington and offspring are released back to the wild. Future status depends on the success of this program.
Pygmy rabbits most often occur in dense stands of big sagebrush growing in deep loose soils. Burrow systems are generally found on mounds or gentle slopes. Corridors of dense shrub cover connecting areas of suitable habitat are critical to recovery efforts.
Conservation actions: The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) initiated a captive breeding program in 2001 with the intent of reintroducing rabbits to the wild. The first release attempt occurred in 2007, but none of the animals survived beyond a year.
In 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 translocating wild pygmy rabbits to Washington from other states to increase genetic diversity and numbers and breeding pygmy rabbits in semi-wild conditions on the release site.
Since 2011, thousands of rabbits have been released into the wild on Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in Douglas County and on The Nature Conservancy Preserve in the Beezley Hills in Grant County.
Biologists closely monitor released pygmy rabbits to collect data on breeding, habitat use, survival, moralities, and other factors to modify reintroduction techniques and manage the rabbit population.
- Washington State Recovery Plan for the Pygmy Rabbit (1995)
- Amendment to the Draft Recovery Plan for the Columbia Basin Distinct Population Segment of the Pygmy Rabbit (USFWS - June 29, 2011)
- DRAFT Periodic Status Review for the Pygmy Rabbit in Washington (2018)
- Status of the Pygmy Rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) in Washington (1993)