Conserving the cutest sagelands critter
Chase Gunnell / 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.
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.
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.