EPHRATA — With pillow cases hanging from their back pockets, metal toilet snakes capped with tennis balls coiled in their hands and dirt covering their clothes, Dave Volson and Chad Eidson looked like they were on some childhood adventure.
The state biologists were in a group that spent two days last week crawling under sage brush and sticking their hands down rabbit holes looking for babies.
They didn’t go away empty-handed.
“We’ve got rabbits coming out our ears,” said Penny Becker, a research scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It was an unexpected and celebrated turn of events in the rocky, decade-long effort to save the tiny, endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit from extinction.
As of Friday afternoon, they’d captured 80 baby pygmy rabbits at a rabbit reintroduction site in the Sage Brush Flat Wildlife Area, north of Ephrata.
Becker said there are several babies still to be captured — and the fertile bunnies are only partway through their breeding season. There are now 130 adults and babies living in fenced enclosures, and unknown numbers of them roaming outside the pens.
“It’s incredible. We didn’t expect this,” Volson said as he searched for babies last Friday. “It’s an embarrassment of riches.”
Volson and Eidson teamed up to round up rabbits in a 6-acre enclosure. They pushed the ball-capped toilet snakes down the holes and then caught the bunnies in the pillow cases when they hopped out a second entrance.
The babies were all weighed and marked for identification. Some were released back into the enclosure, some were moved to a new pen that will be next year’s breeding stock, and some were outfitted with radio collars and released into the wild to start recolonizing the sage lands.
Last year, the government’s efforts to save the tiny rabbit shifted from captive breeding, which failed to produce enough babies, to a field operation that is supplemented with pygmy rabbits from nearby states.
The goal is to preserve at least some of the unique genes of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, which is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, while mixing them with healthier populations of kindred Western rabbits.
About two dozen of the Columbia Basin descendants born in captivity at the Oregon Zoo and 30 rabbits relocated from Oregon and Nevada were moved into two large enclosures at Sage Brush Flat last year. Twelve survived the winter and were joined by more imported and zoo rabbits this spring.
Those rabbits are now reproducing, as healthy rabbits should.
The last time there were this many known pygmy rabbits in Douglas County was at least two decades ago. No one knows what caused the population to suddenly drop, leaving just a dozen by the time they were all captured in 2002.