Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, about the size of a mango, are North America’s smallest rabbit species. Thanks to a recovery effort on Nature Conservancy land in Washington, the formerly dwindling species is experiencing a major bounce-back. Photo © Hannah Letinich

Pygmy Bunnies on the Brink

February/March 2016

It’s 5:30 on a June morning. Crisp shadows stretch from the sagebrush surrounding me. A dozen of us are assembled, yawning, at a fenced, 9-acre enclosure that rises from the rolling shrub-steppe landscape of eastern Washington. We are here to wrangle rabbits.

Our mission: Move endangered pygmy rabbits from the safety of the enclosure onto open land owned by The Nature Conservancy. Chief rabbit wrangler is JoAnn Wisniewski, a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The rest of us are volunteers, assistant biologists and Conservancy employees. “OK,” says Wisniewski. “Go catch some rabbits.”

Pygmy rabbits depend on the shrub-steppe landscape of eastern Washington, where they eat almost exclusively sagebrush. Photo © Hannah Letinich
Pygmy rabbits depend on the shrub-steppe landscape of eastern Washington, where they eat almost exclusively sagebrush. Photo © Hannah Letinich

We duck through the gate. A tiny brown blur flits by me, ears flopping, as adorable as can be. Then another. In fact, the place is hopping. None of us take this for granted. We are witnessing a major bunny bounce-back, the heartening result of a difficult recovery operation to return these animals from the brink of extinction.

Bye Bye Bunny

Mango-sized Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits are North America’s smallest rabbit species, and among the only rabbits that burrow. Forget carrots; these guys eat sagebrush. And lots of it: according to the Conservancy’s aridlands program director in Washington, Chuck Warner, sagebrush comprises nearly all of the pygmy rabbits’ diet.

Coyote-proof enclosures create conditions for semi-wild breeding, a crucial part of the pygmy rabbit recovery effort. Photo © Hannah Letinich
Coyote-proof enclosures create conditions for semi-wild breeding, a crucial part of the pygmy rabbit recovery effort. Photo © Hannah Letinich

This little rabbit is an important link in the shrub-steppe ecosystem, both as prey and as a burrower that keeps soil mixed. But in an all-too-familiar tale, farming and development fragmented their only habitat. By the late 1980s biologists counted just six small, isolated populations in Washington. By 2001 the six populations had dwindled to one. A 2003 survey concluded that fewer than 30 Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits remained in the wild.

One ecologist described the situation to me with grim clarity. Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, he said, were caught in an “extinction vortex.” In my mind I pictured little bunnies, noses twitching, whirlpooling into oblivion.

A recovery program participant attempts to catch a rabbit from a PVC burrow in an enclosure. Photo © Hannah Letinich
A recovery program participant attempts to catch a rabbit from a PVC burrow in an enclosure. Photo © Hannah Letinich

Alarmed, federal and state wildlife biologists assembled a rescue team including university researchers and breeders at two zoos. In 2001 the team captured all the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits it could find—16—and transferred them to captive breeding facilities in 2002. But the sparks of romance just didn’t fly. Wisniewski puts it bluntly. “It wasn’t going well.”

The Problem with Being Snack-Sized

Next, the team made a difficult decision: To undertake what Wisniewki calls “a genetic rescue.” Biologists introduced closely related Idaho pygmy rabbits to bolster the gene pool, meticulously maintaining at least 75% Columbia Basin genes in each individual. Birth rates went up, and in 2007 biologists released 20 of the captive-bred rabbits onto protected land owned by the state.

Due to habitat fragmentation, fewer than 30 Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits remained in the wild in 2003, according to a survey. Photo © Hannah Letinich
Due to habitat fragmentation, fewer than 30 Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits remained in the wild in 2003, according to a survey. Photo © Hannah Letinich

Freedom, however, was short-lived. “When you’re snack-sized it takes a lot of you to survive,” Wisniewski told me, adding that under the best of circumstances, the rabbits’ natural survival rate is less than 15 percent. Not too surprisingly, all 20 rabbits disappeared. Most were eaten by hawks and coyotes.

In 2010 the pygmy rabbit recovery program was reorganized under Penny Becker of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. She tried a new tactic: semi-wild breeding. I discovered that’s biologist-speak for a bunny head-start program.

After the rabbits are caught, they are tagged and weighed. Photo © Hannah Letinich
After the rabbits are caught, they are tagged and weighed. Photo © Hannah Letinich

The head start was big: Build a 9-acre coyote-proof enclosure (now one of four), spread hawk-proof netting over clumps of sagebrush in the enclosure, install rabbit-ready PVC burrows under netted areas, and provide water and occasional commercial rabbit food. In November 2013, 27 pygmy rabbits were brought into this semi-wild environment. Rabbit romance flourished.

Finally, Breeding Like Rabbits

So here I am, stalking their many descendants. It’s like a treasure hunt. One person pushes a tennis ball on a stiff wire into the end of a PVC burrow. Another covers the other end with a pillowcase. If a bunny is home, it will be nudged into the pillowcase.

Rabbits that are being released from their enclosures into the wild are transferred in ventilated blue plastic tubs. Photo © John F Marshall
Rabbits that are being released from their enclosures into the wild are transferred in ventilated plastic tubs. Photo © John F Marshall

On our first try we get one! It is even tinier than most, about peach-sized. We gently deliver it to a shade shelter where Wisniewski and her team tag it, weigh it and place it in a ventilated blue plastic tub to await its fate.

As the sun climbs higher, coyotes begin a chorus from a nearby ridge. Their howls sound mournful, which I translate as “Hey, we want in on that bunny buffet, too.” We also find a rabbit whose dash from beneath the protective netting ended fatally, apparently by hawk attack.

In 2015, with the help of volunteers and near-weekly releases, Wisniewski’s program delivered nearly 600 pygmy rabbits into the wild, from four enclosures. Since 2011, they have released close to 1,800. Photo © Hannah Letinich
In 2015, with the help of volunteers and near-weekly releases, Wisniewski’s program delivered nearly 600 pygmy rabbits into the wild, from four enclosures. Since 2011, they have released close to 1,800. Photo © Hannah Letinich

These reminders of snackability aside, the enclosure teems with bunnies. They scurry between burrows, perch in sagebrush nibbling leaves (talk about cute), and hunker under bushes—skills they will need in the world outside. In 2015, with the help of volunteers and near-weekly releases, Wisniewski’s program delivered nearly 600 pygmy rabbits into the wild, from four enclosures. Since 2011, they have released close to 1,800.

By early afternoon we’ve corralled about 15 rabbits that are old enough and ready for their ultimate survival test. We drive them to Conservancy land about a mile away. I carry two tubs up a sage-scented hill, and carefully lift the trembling bunnies out. The moment seems both triumphant and harsh. The rabbits are soft. I can feel their tiny hearts beat.

Fifteen percent, I think.

A version of this story appears in the February/March issue of Nature Conservancy magazine.

— NCM

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57 comments

  1. Great story and educational. As a rabbit pet owner I really appreciate all the efforts to restore the pygmy rabbit population. I would have loved to partake in the transfer process.

    1. Hi Lisa!
      The Pygmy Rabbit reintroduction project needs volunteers year-round! Please email me if you are in WA state and are interested in volunteering!
      Lauren Miheli
      Volunteer Coordinator
      Washington Chapter

  2. I have rescued and rehomed pet rabbits for many yrs, it does my heart good to know this darling pygmy rabbit will now have a better chance at repopulating thinks to all of your efforts and wonderful hearts, go go bunny go! <3

  3. Thank you. Will be using this in my science classes. The students love seeing some of your research projects.

  4. Thank you for helping get these adorable bunnies back from the brink. I would love to help on this kind of project! Not only educational, but doing a wonderful act of kindness to help repair a world we humans are destroying.

  5. Wonderful news! Thank you to everyone involved along the way – sharp minds, skilled hands, & bunny loving hearts 😉
    (yes, that’s my real name…)
    .

  6. I am a rabbit mom. I have 2 and they are my kids. I just read this article and I thank you for what you have done! I live in New Mexico and we are sage! Is Washing ton State the only place these rabbits can live and thrive?

  7. That is so cool. I love rabbits. I even lived in Eastern Washington in the early 1960’s and never heard of Pygmy Rabbits. Keep up the good work.

  8. What a pleasure to read a story such as this one. Another in a long list of high marks for the Conservancy which looks at the big picture; habitat protection. By providing the necessary habitat for this species, you have no doubt aided several other deserving species in that particular area.

    1. Hi Lisa!
      Please email me at lmiheli@tnc.org for more information on how to volunteer!
      Best,
      Lauren Miheli
      Volunteer Coordinator
      Washington Chapter

  9. Since farming & development forced this species to brink of extinction & human population is projected to increase another 3 billion during the next 3 decades, inexorably leading to increased farming & development, what’s the prevailing wisdom reg. the long term value of all this expended effort?
    Since this little rabbit (“is an important link in the shrub-steppe ecosystem, both as prey and as a burrower that keeps soil mixed”) in order to ‘conserve’ the last vestiges of natural ecosystems, it has to start w/ human population control. Unfortunately, the likelihood that man in his wisdom will embark on exterminating hawks & coyotes to salvage his efforts to save pygmy rabbits, is what to expect.

  10. I enjoyed the story and the impressive efforts made to restore its population.

    I believe there is another species of pygmy rabbit native to northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming. Maybe this is the same as the Idaho species. Does the author of this article know the status of other pygmy rabbit populations?

  11. I had no idea of their existence until now. Precious little guys with hardly a fighting chance, being so tiny. Thank you for saving them from extinction. Where there is a will, there is a way.

  12. We have property that is next to the Conservancy land for the Pygmy rabbits. We would love to know how we can help. Are there volunteer opportunities?

  13. So if you save pygmy rabbits why can’t you save wild horses and stop their slaughter.
    Just asking…..no begging

  14. Absolutely enchanting story, and incredibly cute animals…these should be the new poster-animals for our movement. They are even cuter than pandas….well done, Conservancy!

  15. I love nature and all it gives. We should learn how to protect those who need our help, whether it be people, the environment, animals, etc.

  16. I’m for all wildlife. I want to see these animals accumulate! All wildlife deserve a life, just like we do!
    I hope they find habitat they can safely breed and accumulate!

  17. That is sowonderful keep up the great work.and Thank You All and God Bless You

  18. Nice feel-good story, but it seems like you are focusing on the symptom and not the cause. If the habitat concerns aren’t alleviated, you are only delaying the inevitable.

  19. It’s very sad to spend so much energy bringing back a population of rabbits which is going to be eaten in about ten minutes. I feel bad for the little bunnies. They don’t have a chance in he**. What were you all thinking?

  20. I am so grateful people like you exist, with all the cruelty done to the best of creation on our world, you are keeping our planet alive. Thank-you

  21. Heartwarming story of a species brought back from the brink. I am proud of the work the Nature Conservancy does in this state (Washington). Now we citizens have to ensure that enough wild habitat remains in the future for the pygmy rabbit and all the other animals with whom we must share the land.

  22. I believe Oregon Zoo also had a role in this recovery, breeding and exchanging rabbits to maintain genetic diversity.

    1. This is correct. The Oregon Zoo was first in successfully breeding pygmy rabbits in a program that eventually lead to the large breeding enclosures in Washington State. They created the husbandry books for cross-breeding the few remaining Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits with those from the Great Basin. The Oregon Zoo biologists even discovered a few unknown behaviors of pygmy rabbits. The Oregon Zoo and WSU were instrumental in creating the foundation for breeding pygmy rabbits.

  23. We need to protect this little bunny and put them on the Endangered Species before they are gone forever.

    1. The subspecies of pygmy rabbit in this article is protected as Endangered. The Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit is a distinct and protected subspecies of the Great Basin Pygmy Rabbit.

  24. Thank you for all of your efforts. What a wonderful story to start my day. Thank you.

  25. I am happy to see the numbers rising again through your efforts but aren’t you just giving predators more of these cute creatures as prey for hawks and coyotes?

  26. Awesome hiw wonderful. Never heard of them. There are wonderful people out there that r concerned for animals,environment and NOT r greedy mean cruel people. We need to save all God’s creations

  27. I truly enjoyed reading and learning about the tiny Pygmy rabbit. I’m glad this group of conservationist rabbit lovers took the time and care to slowly reintroduce them back in the wild. They are adorable!

  28. Thanks for introducing me to this precious species. And thanks tremendously for all the knowledge and work that went into developing a viable rescue program.

  29. These rabbits are too adorable not to want to help them survive.

    thank you for your work and great efforts to protect/help them.

    ce

  30. Hello Readers!
    I notice many of you expressing interest in getting involved in this project! If you would like information on volunteering with this, or any project with The Nature Conservancy in Washington please email me at wavolunteer@tnc.org
    Thank you!
    Lauren Miheli
    Volunteer Coordinator
    Washington Chapter

  31. Thank God for people like this and their heroic efforts to save the rabbits!!!

  32. Been visiting the Juniper Dunes Wilderness area for nearly 40 years without ever sighting one of these wonderful critters. How do I ever get a peak at them now?
    Congrats for a job well done. I thought they was gonners.

  33. This is a remarkable solution regarding saving species from extinction. Zoos are having thier problems breeding endangered animals in captivity. Just last week the Sacramento Zoo lost the female Sumatran Tiger from her mate. She was dead in minutes from the male attacking her-very tragic. Again in the wild this may not happen because males choose thier mates not mankind. This same situation happened at the Henry Doorly zoo but with a Clouded Leopard. The point is natural surroundings that are native to an animal is the solution when saving a species if it is to survive. You are a wonderful example and sets a life saving ground rule everywhere. Want to help a declining population of Jack Rabbits on my property. Have a manzanita grove provides protection from raptors but not coyotes.Should I layer limbs to make mounds for a safer haven or what? Thankyou for your help.

  34. Truly hard work for saving
    Bunnies on the edge. I would
    Love to volunteer if there are
    teams I n Arizona. I live in
    TUCSON . I had 3 Netherland
    Dwarfs that I raised from 6wks to 101/2 years!! They
    We’re house bunnies I trained
    to go outdoors and come back
    In the house! Such loving souls. If there is a need let me know.?

  35. Hello Beth,

    I have followed the Nature Conservancy’s reporting on the pygmy rabbit captive breeding program with interest. In 1998, I bought the land where the breeding enclosure in your article is located. My intent was to protect the remaining pygmies there. The story did not have a happy ending; all of the pygmies on my property died out at the very time we were capturing every known pygmy to relocate to captive breeding programs. I’m sad to say that none of the pygmy rabbits on my property contributed any genes to the current crop of rabbits. The captive breeding program didn’t have a happy ending either; it wasn’t until the breeding enclosure at Sagebrush Flats was built under Dr. Becker’s direction that WDFW discovered the correct formula. The breeding enclosure on my property is the fourth in line. We began building it in late 2012 and finished the last details in 2014. In 2015 we trapped and released 400 pygmy kits from that enclosure alone. I would like to point out that this fourth enclosure is the first private/public venture for the semi-wild breeding of pygmy rabbits. I would also like to note that I am a 20-year long member of the Nature Conservancy. With luck pygmy rabbits will once again thrive in the Beezley Hills and further north in the future.

    1. Hi Peter,

      I have passed your comment along to Beth. Thank you for your work in the conservation of pygmy rabbits! May there be many more kits to release and a growing fully wild population in the future.

      Cheers,
      Lisa

  36. all animals deserve protection. who allowed (bad) people to destroy living beings carelessly and heartlessly. i could cry the way species are disappearing !

  37. My husband and I live in Portland, Oregon in the St Johns neighborhood. Week before last he came in the house after sitting out in his favorite spot behind our garage and told me a small brown bunny came and sat in front of him for a few moments. Since then this bunny has visited several times and last week came into the front yard where I was able to get a photo of him. I will email you the photo and would be interested to know whether this is a Columbia basin pygmy rabbit. He isn’t interested in the lettuce left out for him.

  38. IT was a great experience and I recommend it to anyone wanting to come out and help the rabbits.

  39. We can’t let any state land involved go to commercial use.