Oregon Zoo's efforts show signs of life for endangered Columbia - KPTV - FOX 12

Oregon Zoo's efforts show signs of life for endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits

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Photo: Oregon Zoo Photo: Oregon Zoo

Eight years after the world's last known Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit died, there is hope for the population of a hybrid breed.

Bryn, the end of a lineage of kitten-sized rabbits in eastern Washington, was one of 16 rabbits brought to breeding sites like the Oregon Zoo as part of a collaborative effort to revive the species beginning in 2002.

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit population had become so tiny and inbred that Basin-specific genetics were at risk of extinction.

Pygmy rabbits from other western states were brought in as part of the breeding program.

With an assist from the Oregon Zoo's Future for Wildlife program, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to breed and release these mixed-genetics rabbits along the basin.

The latest winter survey results were just released and they showed the detection of 17 individual rabbits, with 15 of them born in the wild.

"This is the most wild-born rabbits we've detected yet," said WDFW biologist JoAnn Wisniewski, who has worked on the project for the past four years. "This is good news for the small population of rabbits that have established on Sagebrush Flat."

Spotting these small mammals during snow-packed winters is tricky, she explained, so the team collects the rabbit droppings instead. Pellets are matched to existing DNA samples to determine whether they came from released or wild-born rabbits.

At the second release site, Beezley Hills, the team did not detect any rabbits.  

"That doesn't mean there weren't any though," Wisniewski said. "There are a lot more coyotes at Beezley than at Sagebrush Flat. We didn't even see a single mouse track or any other kind of prey either."

Pygmy rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain, but experts believe if they continue to breed and their habitat can be restored, they will have a good chance at survival.

In 2001, the Oregon Zoo became the first facility in the world to successfully breed pygmy rabbits. With those protocols established, wildlife officials developed additional breeding facilities at Washington State University and at Northwest Trek and since then more than 1,600 pygmy rabbits have been born among the three institutions.

The Oregon Zoo concluded its 12-year recovery effort in 2012, releasing its last 14 breeding rabbits and their offspring at Sagebrush Flat, but the zoo continues to participate in pygmy rabbit conservation efforts.

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