By Corinna Hanson, Moses Coulee Land Manager
Some of the last surviving Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits—small enough to fit in a cereal bowl—were caught up in the Sutherland Canyon Fire that swept across 29,000 acres of Central Washington sagebrush lands in the last week of June.
The tiny rabbits, in danger of extinction and the focus of an intense recovery effort led by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), were in semi-wild breeding pens and in release pens in our Beezley Hills Preserve and on an adjacent property. The fires destroyed the habitat in and around the pens and killed more than 80 rabbits.
However, not all was lost. WDFW biologists gained special access to the captive breeding facility shortly after the fire went through. They worked with several wildland firefighters to capture and relocate surviving rabbits to a captive breeding pen in another location. A total of 32 rabbits were successfully captured and relocated.
Rabbit survival appeared to be correlated to areas of the pen that had an active irrigation system. As a last-minute measure to help protect the rabbits in the breeding pen, WDFW Biologist Jon Gallie and his crew turned on the irrigation system and adjusted the coverage area of the water as the fire approached the area. After the fire burned through, it was apparent that the fire burned less intensively in the areas with irrigation. It was within these areas where the vast majority of surviving rabbits were found in their burrows.
As I visited the blackened landscape of the burned area after the fire, I thought about how difficult conservation work can be. Recovery of pygmy rabbits is challenging—these animals depend on special habitat that is in limited supply and threatened by wildfire, expansion of agriculture, overgrazing and invasive plants, such as cheatgrass.
The rabbits depend on sagebrush for food and cover. They need deep soils for their burrows, which is another habitat condition that is limited in sagebrush country. The rabbits are also a perfect prey species for multiple predators, including badgers, coyotes, weasels, and many raptors.
It’s clear to me that the recovery goals for pygmy rabbits are going to be challenging to meet. That is why our partnership and support for this work will continue. As discouraging as it is to know that the loss of rabbits is a major conservation setback, it’s important to realize that these things do happen. Conservation work is a dynamic process, full of successes and defeats. Now it is time for us to forge ahead, and work on successes.
While the outcome of the fire presents a significant setback for pygmy rabbit recovery and damage to valuable habitat, we now have an opportunity to rapidly implement restoration measures. The next steps for The Nature Conservancy will include treatments to control invasive plants such as cheatgrass, and planting plugs of sagebrush and forb in the burned areas. Many of the native grass species are anticipated to recover naturally. We will also continue our important partnership with WDFW to support and collaborate on pygmy rabbit recovery efforts any way we can.
I believe that conservation is most successful when agencies, organizations and individuals work together to achieve common goals. I think that pygmy rabbit conservation is certainly one of those challenges that can be overcome with continued hard work and cooperation.