Saving the Pygmy Rabbit

Wildlife — By on October 14, 2010 at 2:12 am
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Adorable endangered Pygmy Rabbit (image from Oregon Zoo)

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.

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Pygmy Rabbits can fit in human hands

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.

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Does the Pygmy Rabbit warrant Federal endangered species protection?

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?

  1. Raise awareness of their threatened (or endangered) status by passing on articles like this one to friends and colleagues
  2. Donate to organizations like the Oregon Zoo, WWF, Western Watersheds Project, etc.
  3. 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:

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6 Comments

  1. Norma says:

    I hope they become protected. And I very much hope that stay wild and that they don’t become pets. That’s the danger of being cute and it worries me to see wild animals being at ease with humans

  2. Havent we taken enough from them and other species?
    Have we not learned the value of every species for generations to come?
    If not, what a shame…
    Till God comes homes and straightens things out I hope this species suffering is nill.

  3. alexis says:

    hello my name is alexis i go to oakwood elementary and im doing a progect to try to help pygmy rabbits and i am rasing money to buy them land to live on if you want to help out text me on my yahoo at c.alexis@yahoo.com and if you can help please do !!

  4. Shiloh Stewart says:

    Wow for something that small they’ve been through a lot … i just hope they don’t go extinct it would be really sad :(

  5. Bunny lover says:

    I am a volunteer working with the University of Idaho and the Washinton State University who is also working on breeding programs and cover study programs to try and see how to save these little guys. They are a main source of food for other animals in the food chain and the help process toxic plants into useable energy in thier ecosystems. They are very important to keep around.

  6. confused says:

    I’m confused. I swear I have one under my porch. Cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Must have been released. We have lots of cottontails but this thing is not growing and is the size of my fist. it’s smaller than the squirrels in the yard. I want to shoot it because we have a garden but it’s too damned cute, so i looked up pygmy rabbits…and was shocked to find they do not exist here in Illinois???? Maybe it was released pet or is runt stunted cottontail not true danny devito rabbit. It’s tame and weird, just sits there smiling at us. Maybe its’ carnivorous and lulling us into complacency, waiting for the right moment to strike.

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