Bunny project breeds success

 

Cameras were clicking in central Washington March 13, when state Fish and Wildlife officials released 20 endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits. Onlookers, enamored with the creatures’ fuzzy ears and dark eyes, were “just like paparazzi,” says Madonna Luers, department spokeswoman, “bunny paparazzi.”

The reintroduction was the culmination of a captive breeding program designed to save the rare rabbit, which is small enough to fit on a human hand (see a photo in an earlier HCN story). It’s the only rabbit in North America to dig its own burrows.

The state granted the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit protection as an endangered species in 1993, after a decline attributed to loss of shrub-steppe habitat, fire, inbreeding and disease. In 2002, state biologists collected 16 of the remaining rabbits to begin a breeding program. The next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit an endangered distinct population segment. It’s the only federally protected pygmy rabbit; a petition to list the entire species failed because the agency said it provided insufficient information.

Rabbits being rabbits, officials initially thought that it wouldn’t take long for the captives to produce hundreds of offspring, says Luers. But reproduction wasn’t as successful as anticipated. In fact, numbers declined. The rabbits lacked genetic diversity, says Ken Warheit, geneticist for the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Scientists concluded that inbreeding was leading to shorter breeding seasons, longer mating rituals, and increased susceptibility to disease; in essence, ineffective bunny sex.

So the scientists introduced three Idaho pygmy rabbits into the Columbia Basin captive breeding project in hopes of diversifying the genetic makeup. The rabbits released on March 13 are 75 percent Columbia Basin and 25 percent Idaho pygmy rabbits. To retain federal protection, all animals released in the wild must be at least 75 percent Columbia Basin pedigree.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington State University are using radio transmitters to monitor the 20 rabbits. So far, raptors have picked off five rabbits. But three males have set out to find mates, traveling up to five miles off the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area release site, and two of the females appear to be preparing for kits by digging natal burrows.

Seventy pygmy rabbits remain in the captive breeding program, and the next batch could be released as early as this fall. Luers emphasizes, though, that the program has a lot of work ahead: “Putting a couple dozen rabbits out,” she says, “that’s a drop in the bucket.”
High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...