Jon Gallie, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)
Recovery efforts for the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has been a rollercoaster ride, experiencing both highs and lows over the past year. Let’s start the ascent: most of 2020 was going very well for our pygmy rabbits.
The mild winter and spring allowed for excellent over-winter survival and productivity (number of kits born per female) giving us the best bunny “crop” since 2016. We released more than 100 kits into the Beezley Hills and Burton Draw/Jameson Lake Recovery Areas while future breeders remained in our enclosures.
Improvements to our release methods paid off. The use of our temporary acclimation pens increased the survival of released juvenile rabbits from 10-15% to 30-40%. Additionally, we saw an increase in the number of active burrows or concentrated rabbit sign sites on the release areas this summer when compared to last year. Rabbits were venturing into more areas in both Beezley Hills and Burton Draw/Jameson Lake Recovery Areas. As previously seen, rabbits continued to recolonize Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields that have mature, 3 to 5-foot tall stands of sagebrush.
Every rollercoaster must drop: everything changed on Labor Day. The catastrophic Pearl Hill Fire destroyed essential habitat for sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and it completely burned the entire Burton Draw/Jameson Lake Rabbit Recovery Area. In the burned Recovery Area, we lost two breeding enclosures, four acclimation/release pens, and the entire reproductive, wild population at Chester Butte Wildlife Area. In total, we estimate nearly half of the entire Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit population in Washington was lost during this fire. The wildfire did not reach occupied pygmy rabbit areas in Sagebrush Flat or Beezley Hills.
Therefore, like everyone else affected in our community, we keep moving forward with what we have left and rebuild what we lost. The rollercoaster ride continues. If you have any questions or want additional information on pygmy rabbit recovery efforts, please contact Jon Gallie with WDFW at firstname.lastname@example.org