Conserving the cutest sagelands critter

Conserving the cutest sagelands critter

Conservation Northwest / Jun 19, 2018 / Restoring Wildlife, Sagelands

Our staff and a supporter recently joined the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on a pygmy rabbit conservation project in Douglas County.

By Chase Gunnell, Communications Director

In 2001, as few as 16 pygmy rabbits remained in Washington, teetering on the brink of local extinction due to habitat loss and fragmentation. They are still classified as endangered in our state, with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission today reaffirming their need for critical protections.

A pygmy rabbit after release back into the sagebrush of a WDFW recovery enclosure. Photo: Chase Gunnell

According to Hannah Anderson, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) wildlife recovery specialist, said the state’s wild pygmy rabbit population – estimated at 250 animals – primarily inhabits two “recovery emphasis areas” at Sagebrush Flats and Beezley Hills in Douglas County. Their numbers are well short of WDFW’s goal of a five-year average population of at least 1,400 rabbits in six separate populations for “downlisting” to threatened status.

Work is ongoing to recover these adorable natives of the Sagebrush Sea, led by biologists with WDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Washington State University, with support from organizations including The Nature Conservancy in Washington, NW Trek, the Oregon Zoo, and Conservation Northwest.

To protect their fragile population and help them successfully breed like rabbits, some are housed temporarily in fenced “recovery enclosures” deep in the shrub-steppe outside the town of Ephrata. Though many challenges remain, including recent wildfires and a mysterious loss of animals this spring, through these efforts more than 1,000 have been returned to quality habitat in our state, mainly on the Sagebrush Flats Wildlife Area. Unfortunately, mortality has been high, and their future is still uncertain.

WDFW and CNW staff ready nets to capture pygmy rabbits for health screening and tagging. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Earlier this month, CNW’s Sagelands Program Lead Jay Kehne, Information Technology Manager Matt Johnson, and CNW member and supporter Ann and I were lucky to assist the project capturing, health-checking and tagging rabbits, while also exploring Washington’s incredible but often under-appreciated sagelands.

We were helping the agency check for signs of rabbit breeding activity, and though unfortunately we found none at the enclosure we visited, likely due to an unexplained loss of male rabbits, it was still an inspiring experience for all involved.

At first glance this shrub-steppe country can seem stark, even desolate. But look closer and it’s teeming with biodiversity—from mule deer, badgers and rainbow trout to sage grouse and miniature rabbits barely the size of two clenched fists. It’s inspiring to be a part of efforts to conserve and restore this amazing landscape and the wild creatures that call it home, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit to Eastern Washington’s sagelands.

CNW supporter Ann releases a pygmy rabbit back into the recovery enclosure. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Check out more photos of our rabbit release below! And learn more about our Sagelands Heritage Program on this webpage.
The team from CNW and WDFW are briefed in the morning at the pygmy rabbit enclosure. Photo: Chase Gunnell
A WDFW biologist examines a fresh rabbit burrow in the recovery enclosure. Photo: Chase Gunnell
A humane trap is placed over a likely burrow. Photo: Chase Gunnell
A WDFW biologist carefully checks a pygmy rabbit for signs of reproduction or other health issues. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Pygmy rabbits are tiny, much smaller than the more common cottontail rabbits. Photo: Chase Gunnell
After it received a health check and a monitoring tag, Matt releases a pygmy rabbit back into the quality sage brush habitat of a WDFW enclosure. Photo: Chase Gunnell
A pygmy rabbit ready to scurry off into the sagelands. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Rabbits use sage brush for cover and food, and are dependent on this iconic shrub-steppe plant for survival. Photo: Chase Gunnell
The basalt rimrock of Moses Coulee towers over sagebrush, a geologic legacy of the Ice Age Missoula Floods. Photo: Chase Gunnell
Sage brush and flowers in Moses Coulee, Eastern Washington. Washingtons sagelands are expansive, but fragmented. Our Sagelands Heritage Program works to to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe landscapes for the good of both wildlife and people. Photo: Chase Gunnell