WDFW biologists to use drones to aid conservation efforts of endangered pygmy rabbits this winter

WDFW biologists to use drones to aid...
WDFW biologists to use drones to aid conservation efforts of endangered pygmy rabbits this winter

Winter is a busy time of year for pygmy rabbit biologists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. After a summer full of breeding, biologists have now begun to build additional enclosures for the endangered species.

They’re also gearing up for a winter of counting just how many rabbits there are and how many of the babies survived from the year prior all while monitoring the health of the rabbits and making sure the genetic makeup of the established population is still strong.

Back in 2001, except for a small population of the tiny species in the Sagebrush Flats Wildlife Area, North America’s smallest rabbits were thought to be almost extinct. They are also the only rabbit to dig their own burrows.

Thanks to captive breeding efforts, the population of Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, which dipped to as low as 40 rabbits in Washington, is slowly being reestablished in Grant and Douglas counties.

This winter, biologists will begin experimenting with drones to help in their tracking of the released rabbits, an effort which began two weeks ago. However, a lack of snow, which makes finding the well-camouflaged and burrowing species easier, has impeded their progress.

Other efforts this upcoming year include a new approach to the breeding enclosures they use to raise the young, called kits.

“We are transitioning away from large, permanent enclosures due to multiple biological and logistical factors,” said Jon Gallie, a wildlife biologist working on the project. “We are going to using smaller more ‘mobile’ breeding enclosures this year.”

He’s optimistic that the new designs will be more efficient, require less upkeep, be better for the rabbits, and help researchers be more adaptable when it comes to fire risk.

In 2017, a fire in Beezley Hills, one of the introduction areas, killed all of the released kits that year, and half of their semi-wild breeding population.

“We lost our largest and most productive breeding enclosure there, which has been a challenge to recover from,” said Gallie.

Fortunately, the population at Sagebrush Flat was not impacted.

As of last count Gallie estimates the pygmy rabbit population is at 300-350 wild adults, a number which has doubled over the last two years.

In the release pens, where the kits are put after being born to prepare them for living completely in the wild, the survival rate is at 60 percent, which has biologists excited.

Gallie says the average long term rate is around ten percent. This year’s kits will remain in the release pens until February when they will get a full taste of the wild and hopefully breed.

“My appreciation of all wildlife species is pretty much equal,” said Gallie. “But you have to be impressed that this is an animal that has evolved to live almost completely off one of the harshest forage plants in the west, sagebrush. Its hard to ignore the cuteness factor too.”

For more information on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and pygmy rabbits, click here.

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