The Pacific Northwest is lucky enough to have many different types of wild animals, including several different types of wild rabbits! One of the smallest and most endangered wild rabbit populations is actually the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits. These rabbits are tiny, the smallest of North America’s rabbits actually! And in the Columbia Basin area, their numbers are at a worrying level. With a small population and increasing threats, Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits face immeasurable odds.
These cute little rabbits are pretty tiny, particularly compared to other types of rabbits. When fully grown, they are less than a foot long and weigh around a pound. As a species, pygmy rabbits can be found in much of the American West, like Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Their greyish-brown coloring and short ears help them blend into their preferred habitats of sagebrush lands. While these rabbits can be found across nine different states, the population in Washington is unique and genetically different after glaciers isolated these rabbits around 10,000 years ago.
Habitat and Diet
Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits are sagebrush obligates, meaning they’re fairly dependent on that type of habitat and while pygmy rabbits have been found in other ecosystems, they thrive in sagebrush-covered lands. As a plant, sagebrush is incredibly important in the American West, both ecologically and culturally for many indigenous peoples. For different indigenous communities and nations, sagebrush has historically been used in all sorts of manners, from making clothing and snowshoes to medicinal tea to spiritual practices like smudging. These short shrubs are vitally important and long-lived too, with some living more than a century.
For the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits (and many other animal species), Washington and Oregon’s shrub-steppe ecosystem is absolutely necessary for their survival. During the spring and summer, pygmy rabbits will eat grasses and forbs but the big sagebrush is a primary food source for these rabbits, consisting of ~90% of their winter diet. The plant can actually be toxic to other animals but pygmy rabbits specifically evolved to eat it. The fragile soil of their habitat also allows for them to be one of the only rabbit species to dig their own underground burrows.
For the last two or so decades, scientists, conservationists, and volunteers from different agencies, organizations, nonprofits, and communities have worked to give the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit a fighting chance at survival. Under the Federal Endangered Species Act, these rabbits are classified as a Distinct Population Segment because they are genetically different and geographically isolated from other pygmy rabbits. And because of habitat segmentation from human development, growing wildfires, climate change, and more, these rabbits have been faced with insurmountable odds and their population numbers have fluctuated wildly, even with help from humans.
Organizations and agencies like Conservation Northwest, the Washington, Oregon, and federal Departments of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Zoo, the Audobon Society, and Nature Conservancy have all played a part in the pygmy rabbit conservation and sagebrush ecosystem protection. The Washington chapter of the Nancy Conservancy, for example, recently secured an additional 282 acres near Quincy in central Washington that have become a part of the existing Beezley Hills Preserve and help assist with pygmy rabbit restoration. The Oregon Zoo, Northwest Trek, and Washington State University, as another example, all spent more than a decade participating in a breeding program for the species.
There are, unfortunately, so many reasons why the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit population is so small and has struggled to rebound, even with human intervention. Habitat degradation and fragmentation are two major threats to this species and many others. As mentioned, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits are almost entirely dependent on sagebrush-covered areas and these areas have drastically decreased in the American West over the last two centuries. The rise in colonization and European settlement of what is now the United States brought agricultural practices unsuited to the natural landscapes like the sagebrush sea and 80% of the sagebrush ecosystem has been lost in Washington because of development and farming.
Highways and major roads are also dangerous for animals of all kinds and climate change has brought an increase in wildfires, both in severity and length. The Pearl Hill fire of 2020, for example, burned hundreds of thousands of acres and wiped out years of conservation and restoration work related to the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit. One of the three recovery areas for the rabbits was completely burned in the fire and estimates suggest that half of the wild and free pygmy rabbit population may have been lost as well. And that fire was sadly just one of many that have negatively affected pygmy rabbits in the Pacific Northwest.
How to Help
If you’ve become taken with these tiny rabbits and want to help them survive and eventually thrive, there are plenty of ways to get involved!
- Become a Citizen Scientist and Report Wildlife Observations
While these rabbits can be hard to spot (both because of their great camouflage features and low numbers), reporting any sort of wildlife observations can be really helpful to scientists. By doing this when you’re out, you can help biologists, conservationists, and others get a better understanding of what life is like for different wild animals.
- Support nonprofits working to help the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits.
Several organizations have been mentioned but Conservation Northwest and Northwest Trek are great places to start. These organizations have, in one way or another, worked to study, breed, and protect the pygmy rabbits and their habitats in Washington state. While Northwest Trek finished their breeding program roughly a decade ago, they are still dedicated to wildlife conservation and research.
- Help Protect Sagebrush-Covered Lands
While these lands may seem dull or unimpressive to some, the sagebrush areas, like parts of the Columbia Basin, are vital to pygmy rabbits and many other flora and fauna species. Thanks to a long history of colonization and urban development, these critical areas are dwindling and becoming fragmented so the fight to protect, reclaim, and restore this type of landscape is also a fight for species survival.
Like other domestic, feral, and wild rabbit populations, many pygmy rabbits have unfortunately have been killed by rabbit hemorrhagic disease. Help limit the number of potential cases by not releasing pet rabbits into the wild.
As the smallest rabbit species in North America, it may be hard to spot pygmy rabbits out in the wild. They also live in an ecosystem some might deem ugly or boring. But these rabbits and the sagebrush-covered lands they thrive in are incredibly important! In Washington, there are the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, a subpopulation that’s actually genetically different from other pygmy rabbits. Between wildfires, fragmented and lost habitats, and more, these rabbits are having a difficult time surviving out in the wild. While there are plenty of reasons to worry, there are ways to get involved and help these cute, little rabbits.
Have you ever seen or heard of the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit before? Let me know in the comments!