SPOKANE – The only surviving pair of endangered pygmy rabbits released as part of a program to increase their numbers in the wild have dodged coyotes, badgers, hawks and owls to find time for love, proud scientists said Thursday in announcing the rabbits have successfully bred.
“We were worried. It took them a little while, but they did what rabbits do best,” Rod Sayler, a Washington State University conservation biologist, said from Pullman.
Predators nearly wiped out the population of 20 captive-reared Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits released in March near Ephrata in central Washington. Two males that wandered outside the study area were captured and brought back to the captive breeding program, leaving only an adult male and female in the wild as of June 1.
But sprits were buoyed when doctoral student Len Zeoli last week found the female digging a burrow and lining it with grass, an indication she was preparing to give birth. Later, Zeoli spotted a partially grown juvenile rabbit near another burrow from what is believed to be a second litter of babies, called kits, Sayler said.
The male, which WSU students nicknamed Utapau after a planet in the Star Wars movies, and Impala, the female whose study number is F4, could breed again this year, Sayler said, noting that rabbit pairs can mate two to three times a season. Each litter produces from four to six kits.
It is not known whether the two litters came from the same female, or if one was the offspring of another female that was later killed by predators, he said.
The fact that there is more than one litter is encouraging, Sayler said.
“We considered that our first goal; to have that breeding success,” he said. “Our next goal is to have animals survive longer and have more kits.”
The rabbits, slightly larger than a man’s hand, eat sagebrush and are the only rabbits in the United States that dig their own burrows.
The Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area where the captive rabbits were released about 10 miles north of Ephrata is considered the last native home of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit. The rabbit was listed as a state endangered species in 1993 and protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2003.
None of the rabbits is known to exist in the wild. Descendants of the last 16 wild rabbits captured at the site have been crossbred with pygmy rabbits from Idaho, and some of those animals were released at Sagebrush Flat.
WSU’s Department of Natural Sciences, the Oregon Zoo and Northwest Trek near Tacoma, working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are raising between 75-100 pygmy rabbits in captivity for eventual release into the wild.
Sayler said scientists are debating when to have another release, but it could come as early as this fall. Additional steps will be taken to protect the females, such as erecting fences or cages around their burrows to keep predators out, Sayler said.