Endangered pygmy rabbit population halved by fast-moving fire

‘Not all is lost.’


The aftermath of the Pearl Hill Fire. Washington’s Pearl Hill and Cold Springs fires wiped out roughly half of the existing population of Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits.

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In 2001, scientists collected the last Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits they could find in the wild — just 16 animals — and embarked on a decades-long endangered species recovery project. About the size of a grapefruit, North America’s smallest rabbit relies on intact sagebrush steppe habitat in central Washington. This genetically unique population was decimated over the course of the 20th century by development, agriculture and worsening fire seasons. Bringing them back required interbreeding with pygmy rabbits from the Great Basin of the intermountain West and an intensely managed reintroduction program. (“After nearly going extinct, Washington’s pygmy rabbits need room to growHCN, 5/31/19).

On September 7, roughly half of the existing population of Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits was wiped out as Washington’s Pearl Hill and Cold Springs fires, fueled by hurricane-force winds, swept over 60 linear miles in less than 24 hours. “There is little to no chance the wild rabbits could have escaped the fire due to its speed,” said Jon Gallie, who leads the rabbit recovery effort for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, in an email. But because researchers had reintroduced rabbits to three different recovery areas, the remaining populations were spared from the blaze. “We have pygmy rabbits well distributed on the landscape in two other areas, so not all is lost,” Gallie said. “We will just have to chart a now more challenging path to recovery.”

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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