Once Facing Extinction, Pygmy Rabbits Begin Breeding in the Wild : The World We Share

Conservation efforts for the Columbia basin Pygmy Rabbit seem to be going in the right direction as the species under threat of becoming extinct in 2002 has now impressed biologists with the recent discovery that at least one of the rabbits has successfully bred in the wild.

In 2002 there were reportedly only 16 pygmy rabbits left in the wild. Michael Illig the animal curator of the Oregon Zoo that played a pivotal role in the effort to save the small rabbits was thrilled to hear about the three kits spotted in the wild.

“Ten years of work: This is what we’ve been waiting for — to actually see rabbits born out there,” said Illig

The Oregon zoo will be the only zoo left this year which will be breeding the endangered pygmy rabbits in captivity.

Penny Becker, the scientist from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was the first to see the kits. She suspects that because of the size difference, the kits could be from different litters and probably more could arrive as the breeding season for the rabbits will only end after two weeks.

The news of the kits is also extremely welcoming because the species has struggled to survive in the wild for a long time. In 2007, the pygmy rabbits were first released in the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area, about 15 miles north of Ephrata, Wash. Unfortunately only one of the 20 animals that was released survived and that too because it was recaptured and returned to the breeding program.

Weighing less than one pound some of the rabbits were infected with a disease and others were killed by predators like the weasel, raptors and coyotes.

This time around, therefore the biologists were more cautious during the release. Illig and the zoo’s conservation biologist David Shepherdson joined the team of WDF&W in creating a 6 foot fence around the central Washington’s sagebrush country, which is the rabbit’s preferred habitat.

The enclosure has many artificial and natural burrows where the rabbits can live and deliver their young. The released rabbits live in the enclosure as long as they get used to the wild diet and then naturally go out through a tunnel.

Shepherdson says that kits were born before the recovery effort began but they did not survive. Usually the kits come out of the burrow in a week and a half after birth.

The zoo began releasing juvenile and adults this year in the second week of May and have continued to do so every couple of weeks.

The pygmy rabbits survive on all sort of grasses in spring and then sagebrush all through the year. Being in bottom of the food chain they are bound to be attacked by predators but the given that the kits have lived the zoo is hopeful that the recovery efforts are going in the right direction.

“They’re healthy and surviving well enough to have kits,” Shepherdson said. “Those have to grow up and breed next year, so this is the first step … in having a self-sustaining wild population.

The zoo also plans to release 100 more juveniles and hopes some of them will definitely survive living in the wild.