It’s been a decade-long struggle for Washington’s pygmy rabbits. The palm-sized bunnies have been all but wiped out from the state. And efforts to breed them in captivity were failing. So, biologists are now attempting to breed the rabbits in their natural habitat. Reporting for EarthFix, Courtney Flatt explains, the pygmy rabbits are finally doing what rabbits are supposed to do.
It’s an unseasonably cold and rainy day in central Washington’s Sagebrush Flats.
Biologist Chad Eidson is also caked in mud. He’s leading a group of scientists and volunteers through six fenced-in acres. They’re scanning the sagebrush for baby pygmy rabbits.
Biologists are hoping to capture 20 bunnies to tag and release into the wild. … That’s a lot for a species that was all but extinct in the state.
For a decade, biologists tried to rear the species in the Oregon Zoo, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and Washington State University. But the pygmy rabbits didn’t like to breed in captivity. Their numbers dwindled, and they suffered from a lot of diseases.
So, during the middle of breeding season last year, biologists moved the rabbits to these semi-wild enclosures.
They’re guarded with electric wires and spikes on top of fence posts. That’s to keep North America’s smallest rabbit safe from…
Becker: “Coyotes, badgers, weasels, lots of birds of prey. They’re a pretty important prey species out here in the sagebrush.”
That’s Penny Becker. She’s leading the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s pygmy rabbit reintroduction effort. She’s traipsing through the sagebrush, measuring each of the endangered animals volunteers catch.
Capturing the tiny rabbits is not an easy task for the group of eight. The rabbits dart like ghosts from sagebrush to sagebrush, in a game of “catch me if you can.”
Once Eidson and the volunteers finally corral a rabbit into a burrow, they must capture it for tagging. This involves placing a dry-as-possible pillow case at one hole and running a plumbing snake attached to a tennis ball through the other hole.
Becker: “They’re finally doing what they’re supposed to, so we’re excited about that. (laughs)”
No one really knows what exactly caused the boom. Rocky Beach is with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says he’s lost sleep worrying about the pygmy rabbits.
Beach: “There’s an old saying, ‘If you can’t be good, be lucky.’ It’s a little bit of both in this instance. They’re not out from underneath the woods yet. That’s for sure.”
This unexpected jump in numbers finally gives biologists room to experiment and gather data they can actually measure. Before, the numbers were so small that scientists could only make guesses.
Becker says this is the third release this year. She does the math in her head.
Volunteers hike through the brush. They carry blue crates packed with pygmy rabbits. Everyone keeps quiet to avoid scaring other rabbits away. Becker gives the marching orders.
Becker: “I’ll show you where your release site is…”
At the first site she holds up one finger and mouths, “Who has release 1?”
Becker: “As you’re there, you’ll see some artificial burrows at your release site.”
But they’re not always easy to find. Becker studies a handheld GPS looking for each burrow. A train of volunteers follows behind. She whispers, “There’s one right there.”
Becker: “You’ll get a piece of burlap. You put the burlap in one side of the artificial burrow. Put your rabbit in, and put burlap on the other side.”
Rocky Beach carefully lifts a tiny rabbit into its new burrow.
And waits a few minutes for the baby to settle before removing the burlap.
It’s now up to the rabbits to breed in the wild. If that’s successful, Becker says, researchers hope to figure out how to keep the rabbits in the area to continue breeding. But this is one step forward.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network