Last month, the Federal Government made a pretty big decision that impacts a pretty small creature. Unfortunately, the Pygmy Rabbit, which measures less than 12 inches long and can fit in a pair of human hands, was denied protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The tiny mammal weighs less than 1 pound, and has suffered the impacts of shrinking habitat due to wildfires, agricultural development, oil and natural gas extraction, and – perhaps somewhat ironically – construction of renewable resource projects. As it loses its habitat, the Pygmy Rabbit is more vulnerable to predators, as well.
Pygmy Rabbits are found in my home state of Oregon, and across the Pacific Northwest from Washington to Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. The species lives in shrub-steppe habitat, and requires large expanses of uninterrupted land in which to makes its burrows for protection and cover. Sagebrush not only protects the Pygmy Rabbit, but forms the foundation of 90% of its diet.
What Makes the Pygmy Rabbit Unique?
Its tiny size makes the Pygmy Rabbit adorable – true – but its also unique from other rabbits and hares due to its short ears and all-over gray coat, including its tail. They are the only rabbit species in North America that digs burrows. While Pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) are the smallest rabbit in North America, they are also the most social.
The recent decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that determined Pygmy Rabbits are not endangered acknowledges the loss of habitat for the species, but determines (without explanation) that there is not a “significant threat” to the Pygmy Rabbit.
This determination is in direct conflict with the endangered species listing of one branch of the species, the Columbia Basin Distinct Population Segment in Eastern Washington, in 2003. In fact, studies by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) support a determination that Pygmy Rabbits are critically endangered in the state of Washington. The Western Watersheds Project, among other groups, has been pushing for protection of the rabbits through captive breeding and re-introduction programs.
In fact, the Columbia Basin population of Pygmy Rabbits in Washington State was considered extinct in the wild, until captive breeding efforts by the Oregon Zoo led to a small comeback of wild rabbits. But simply breeding these animals in captivity and then releasing them to the wild will not ensure long-term survival. Habitat protections must be in place to preserve large uninterrupted swathes of roadless and undeveloped rabbit habitat.
The recent denial of Endangered Species Act protection for the Pygmy Rabbit is not its first setback. Five years ago, the USFWS denied protection, which was overruled by a federal judge in 2007.
So what will be the future of pygmy rabbits? Continued captive breeding at facilities like the Oregon Zoo? Or perhaps we can hope that private land trusts can step in and purchase/protect acreage across the species’ range.
Wondering what you can do to help save the Pygmy Rabbit?
- Raise awareness of their threatened (or endangered) status by passing on articles like this one to friends and colleagues
- Donate to organizations like the Oregon Zoo, WWF, Western Watersheds Project, etc.
- Write to your local congressperson and ask them to take action to protect pygmy rabbit habitat
For more information about saving the pygmy rabbit, see: