Winter surveys over the past few weeks have revealed a survival rate far greater than that of healthier pygmy rabbit populations in surrounding states.
"We're looking at almost 40 percent of our rabbits surviving," said Penny Becker, a research scientist who is overseeing the rabbit recovery effort for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"This is a species that has low survival rate anyway. It's a big challenge to get a lot to survive."
Becker and her survey crew have counted 90 active rabbit burrows in and around the Sage Brush Flat Wildlife Area, outside of the enclosures where a breeding program began in the summer of 2011.
She said she believes that about 40 rabbits are using the burrows.
Surveys of the rabbits last winter counted only four rabbits outside of the enclosures.
The state agency is trying to reestablish pygmy rabbits in their historical range in Douglas and Grant counties, starting in an area about 15 miles north of Ephrata.
The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits -- an isolated population that is considered distinct from other pygmy rabbits around the West -- has been listed as federally endangered since 2003.
All the known rabbits in the wild were captured for a captive breeding program that failed to produce enough rabbits to release back into the wild.
So the recovery effort shifted, and pygmy rabbits from other states were brought in to bolster the local population.
Becker said weather and other natural conditions at the recovery site have been good this year, which have contributed to the higher-than-expected survival rate. Fall rains caused the desert area to green up, giving the rabbits extra food heading into winter.
She said the 40 percent survival rate so far this winter compares to an average survival rate of 22 percent for wild pygmy rabbits in Idaho and 10 percent for the rabbits in Oregon.
That doesn't include the estimated 60 rabbits living inside enclosures that are the breeding stock for rabbits that are released into the wild.
Becker said she hopes to import another 40 or so rabbits in February and March from Oregon and Wyoming to further boost the local population.
Meanwhile, Becker and her survey crew will now begin looking at other areas of Douglas and Grant counties where the rabbits once roamed to see if any rabbits populations not connected to the breeding program still exist in the wild.
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