"The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has been separate from the main population of pygmy rabbits for thousands of years"
While wild and feral rabbits are familiar to most Washington residents, many people are surprised to learn of the existence of pygmy rabbits. And even more surprised to learn how threatened they are as a species. This week marks a milestone, as the Oregon Zoo released the last of its breeding pairs of pygmy rabbits into the wild.
The pygmy rabbit is the world's smallest rabbit species. Adults weigh about one pound, and have a body which is about 10 inches long. By comparison, the more familiar cottontail rabbit weighs a whopping 2-4 pounds, with a body that is 14-19 inches long. The cottontail is itself quite small, and many people mistake cottontail rabbits for pygmy rabbits, which can throw researchers off the count.
(The easiest way to tell the difference, aside from learning to discern the size differences, is that the pygmy rabbit is gray in color without the brown overtones of the cottontail. The pygmy rabbit also does not have the eponymous white tail that the cottontail flashes in alarm when it dashes away.)
Pygmy rabbits prefer sagebrush and high desert habitat. They can be found in Idaho, southern Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and Montana. An isolated population is also found in eastern Washington, which is where the Oregon Zoo released their rabbits.
Unlike many other rabbit species, who tend to be generalists, the pygmy rabbit is very attached to a particular sort of habitat. It likes dry, brushy territory, ideally with heavy sagebrush cover. The pygmy rabbit is shy, and seems "very reluctant" to cross open areas. As the West is gradually being cleared and ranched, the pygmy rabbit is losing territory at a fast rate. The Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit sub-species is particularly threatened, with one remaining stronghold left at the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in eastern Washington.
The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has been separate from the main population of pygmy rabbits for thousands of years, and has developed its own distinct genetic profile. Unfortunately, as the sagebrush lands of eastern Washington are gradually converted to agriculture, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has been shouldered aside. The population hit a low point in 2002, with only 15 rabbits left in the wild.
These adorably tiny, fuzzy little creatures have been very successfully bred by the Oregon Zoo, which saw the birth of thirty babies (called "kits") this year. The Oregon Zoo has transferred them into a short-term enclosure to help during their transition. The six-acre enclosure will help the rabbits adjust to life in the great outdoors, before being released completely.