By Matt Miller, senior science writer
Meet the pygmy rabbit: the smallest rabbit species in the world, a creature that only thrives in the biggest, healthiest sagebrush and one of the hardest-to-spot critters in North America.
I’ve searched for them but in sagebrush country for years but never caught so much as a glimpse.
Recently, I got a tip on a spot in southwestern Wyoming where the little rabbits thrived. That sounded like the perfect excuse for a 4th of July holiday road trip.
I found a great and little-visited national monument where you can indeed spot pygmy rabbits, as well as a lot of other sagebrush-dependent wildlife.
But first, a little natural history on this interesting animal.
Tiny Rabbit in the Big Sage
Pygmy rabbits need sagebrush country. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Pygmy rabbits require a very specific habitat: big sagebrush. Some research has indicated they do best in sagebrush that is six feet or more in height.
Such habitat was once common in many western states. Today, most of that healthy habitat has been lost to fire, non-native weeds, juniper encroachment, unsustainable grazing and energy development.
The little rabbits have habits quite different from other rabbit and hare species in North America. Most rabbits don’t actually dig their own holes; they utilize vacated holes dug by badgers, marmots and other mammals. Not so with pygmy rabbits. They dig their own holes under their favorite plant, big sagebrush.
They are quite adept burrowers. In parts of their range, the snow can get quite deep, so the pygmy rabbit digs a network of trails under the snow to get from one brush to the next.
Most conservationists believe these little rabbits have been greatly reduced in population. That makes sense, given their loss of habitat. But there is surprisingly little scientific research on their exact status. While there have been petitions to list them under the Endangered Species Act, none of these efforts has succeeded.
There is a genetically distinct population of pygmy rabbits in Washington, known as Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, that has been the subject of considerable conservation effort.
In 2002, only 16 of these animals remained. A captive breeding effort was launched to save them. The first release in 2007 resulted in all the rabbits being eaten by predators – the zoo-born animals were not ready for life in the wild.
The breeding effort continues, but conservationists are now rearing pygmy rabbits in open enclosures to better acclimate them to natural conditions.
The Nature Conservancy purchased the Beezley Hills Preserve in Washington in part as potential pygmy rabbit habitat.
Elsewhere, the difficulty in assessing populations is likely in part because pygmy rabbits are difficult to find and observe. They have small home ranges; researchers have found they don’t venture more than 100 meters from their den. Big, dense sagebrush is also not the easiest place to see a tiny and elusive critter.
For wildlife watchers, they can almost seem like little gnomes of the high desert: you will often hear people say they are found on this reserve or that butte, but when you go, you never find them.
Earlier in the summer, Canadian biologists and mammal enthusiasts Dave Robichaud and Melissa Frye told me of a spot where pygmy rabbits could be reliably seen.
And so, over the holiday weekend, my wife and I made our way to southwestern Wyoming, to Fossil Butte National Monument.
The Sagebrush Critters of Fossil Butte
A young sage grouse at Fossil Butte. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
I’m not sure why more people don’t know about Fossil Butte. Maybe it’s the remote location. Or maybe it suffers being in a state and region with a plethora of natural wonders.
The national monument was established to protect the fossil beds on the property. Once this area was covered by a lake, and more similar to Central American forest than the arid sagebrush country of today.
The visitor center displays an impressive array of fossils, especially large fish including some of my favorites like gar and paddlefish. On Fridays and Saturdays, you can watch paleontologists excavating fossils.
This isn’t just a fossil park. The sagebrush on the national monument has not been grazed or disturbed since the 1970s. While there are some weeds, the habitat is in remarkably good condition.
Big sagebrush, bunch grasses, wildflowers: healthy high desert country at its finest.
And where’s there’s great habitat, wildlife thrives: pronghorn, white-tailed prairie dog, Wyoming ground squirrel, greater sage grouse and sage thrasher, among many others.
Wyoming ground squirrel. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Robichaud had advised me to check out the patch of sagebrush around the visitor center for pygmy rabbits. I inquired with a refuge volunteer, who acted as if I had asked him where to spot sasquatches. A refuge staffer informed me that there was indeed a colony of pygmy rabbits around the center.
These rabbits are crepuscular (they’re primarily active at dawn and dusk). So at dusk, we returned to the parking lot.
And sure enough, just before dusk, a pygmy rabbit appeared. Right in the parking lot. It was not a wilderness sighting, but it was great to observe the animal clearly through binoculars.
A pygmy rabbit makes a parking lot appearance. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Pygmy rabbits are pretty easy to tell from the more-common mountain cottontails that share their range. First, pygmy rabbits don’t have the white “cotton” tail. If you see white, it’s not a pygmy.
They also have a grayer, dustier appearance. And of course, they’re a lot smaller. If you have seen many rabbits, you’ll see the difference right away.
We returned the next evening and saw three more pygmy rabbits.
Pygmy rabbits can be difficult to spot in sagebrush habitat. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
The national monument attracts visitors to the fossil beds, but we often felt like we had the whole place to ourselves as we photographed wildlife, hiked and enjoyed the scenery.
I often hear people describe sagebrush country as “boring” – they drive by the desert going 75 on the interstate, and they see only monotonous brush.
Take a walk in healthy habitat and you’ll feel differently – the color of the wildflowers and diversity of the wildlife makes the high desert pop to life. There aren’t many places better than Fossil Butte for that experience. Hopefully you too will be rewarded with a sight of the tiniest rabbit on earth.
Pronghorn. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.