From The Oregon Zoo
PORTLAND, Ore. - For the first time in more than 10 years, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has bred and successfully given birth in the endangered animals’ original historic range.
A litter of kits has been confirmed in a six-acre pre-release enclosure at the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in central Washington, where conservationists are releasing rabbits bred at the Oregon Zoo and other sites back into the wild –– and hoping that they multiply like rabbits.
|Oregon Zoo curator Michael Illig prepares a pygmy rabbit for release near a protective enclosure at the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in central Washington. Photo by Penny A. Becker, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.|
Despite rabbits’ reputation for reproducing quickly, disease, inbreeding, loss of habitat and other factors nearly wiped out the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, and only 16 remained by 2002.
America’s smallest native rabbit, weighing less than one pound when fully grown, the pygmy (Brachylagus idahoensis) is also the country’s only burrow-digging and sagebrush-climbing rabbit.
So far, 93 pygmy rabbits have been reintroduced to the Sagebrush Flat area this spring and summer, including 29 kits from the Oregon Zoo. With another month still left in the breeding season, the total number of rabbits released from all facilities includes 52 kits born this year and 41 adults (all adults from Washington State University). The animals released include those bred from the original 16 remaining Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits as well as wild pygmy rabbits from Oregon. Conservationists plan to release more this fall or next year.
To protect them from predators, encourage breeding and help them transition to their new surroundings, the rabbits are initially being kept in wire mesh enclosures in the wildlife area.
“We’ve taken extra steps to try to ensure that we don’t lose these unique creatures. Every animal is important,” said Kim Smith, Oregon Zoo director. “We’re committed to conservation of many endangered species –– large and small –– and the fact is, these are the last Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in existence.”
The shy rabbits are dependent on sagebrush, which makes up the majority of their diet and grows in deep loose soil in which the rabbits dig burrows. The rabbits have been edged out of their habitat as sagebrush steppe has been converted to agricultural land. Disease, wildfire and predation by raptors, coyotes and weasels also have contributed to the rabbit’s decline.
Until this release, there were no Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits known to be left in the wild. Although there are other pygmy rabbits, including in Idaho, Oregon and Utah, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has been separated from the other populations for thousands of years and is genetically distinct.
In 2002, the remaining 16 Columbia basin pygmy rabbits were placed into breeding programs at Oregon Zoo, Washington State University and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Washington, and bred in collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2003 the rabbit was listed as federally endangered. In preparation for breeding the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, the Oregon Zoo bred Idaho pygmy rabbits, the first in the world to do so.
To strengthen the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit stock and increase the chances of a successful recovery, the rabbits have been cross-bred with wild pygmy rabbits from Idaho. Cross-breeding of the rabbits was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The first attempt to re-introduce the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit into the wild fell short. In the spring of 2007, 20 captive-bred pygmy rabbits were released into Sagebrush Flat, but by fall, none had survived, mostly due to predation.
“To ensure a better result, we’re releasing nearly five times the number of rabbits at a time as we did last time,” said David Shepherdson, deputy conservation division manager at Oregon Zoo. “Also we’ve devised the transitional wire mesh enclosures for their protection and to help them get accustomed to their wild habitat, which has many predators and risks. Their habitat is being restored as well, and we’re hoping these factors help ensure survival for these rabbits.”
The released rabbits will have implanted microchips and some will be fitted with radio collars so conservationists can continue to track them and monitor their recovery.
For more information about the Oregon Zoo’s Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit breeding program, visit www.oregonzoo.org/Conservation/pygmyrabbit.htm.
The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission to inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife. Committed to conservation, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot butterflies, western pond turtles, Oregon spotted frogs and Kincaid’s lupine. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats.
The zoo opens at 9 a.m. daily, and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Zoo visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit www.trimet.org for fare and route information.
General admission is $10.50 (ages 12-64), $9 for seniors (65 and up), $7.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $2 per car is also required. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.