This loss highlights the importance of genetic interchange and landscape-level habitat preservation
The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act but efforts to restore the bunny have been unsuccesful. Even efforts at maintaining as much of the Columbia Basin ancestory/gene by interbreeding with Idaho pygmy rabbits are not looking good.
Last-ditch effort to save pygmy rabbits near an end – Wenatchee Work Online
Pygmy rabbits are very timid animals, not prone to travel large distances or cross open spaces without cover from predators. Fragmentation and manipulation of habitat associated with development, livestock grazing, and other activities that degrade the thick old-growth sagebrush pygmy rabbits need to survive is largely responsible for the imperilment of the rabbits.
Update – Dr. Steve Herman explains some history :
This may be our best current example of a subspecies (“species”, by ESA definition) being stomped into extinction by Public Grazing. The last place where Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits were found was Sagebrush Flat, which was that last large hunk of deep-soiled sagebrush in Washington. When it became obvious that this was the last place this burrowing rabbit survived, the area was “managed” by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. I had worked for years trying to get the cows off, because the grazing clearly was at odds with the rabbits (trampling burrows and eating grasses and forbs necessary for reproduction). Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists championed the cows, one of them claiming, “Steve, we’re concerned if we lose the cows we’ll lose the rabbits.”
So the cowheads got together, formed a Coordinated Resource Management Committee and planned for more grazing. The WDFW bought the acreage from WDNR for a huge amount of money, then increased the grazing in a program that included bringing water to portions of the area that had been beyond the range of cattle earlier. New wells were drilled, new water distribution systems were installed, and the number of cattle was increased. The mantra of the CRM Committee was, “The cows and the rabbits have been together for a hundred years, so there’s no doubt that they’re compatible”.
It wasn’t long before I began getting calls from frantic WDFW personnel on the ground (these were essentially “anonymous”) reporting collapsed active burrows, scorched earth between sagebrush plants, and other insults in the relatively small area where the rabbits were holding out. But the WDFW had instituted an elaborate “monitoring” scheme that conveniently sidestepped reality, and their “data” showed “no impact” from the cows.
When the rabbits were down to fewer than 20, the decision was made to take them all into captivity. Of course this was greeted with enthusiasm and confidence that the danger was over; it was just a matter of time before the problem would be solved. Such is the glamour of captive breeding programs in our day. Everyone loves them, in part because “we” are going to solve “nature’s problems”.
The captive breeding program was botched from the beginning. The rabbits sent to the Portland Zoo were fed nothing but sagebrush for at least months (science was never part of this program or the whole Pygmy Rabbit equation) when they should have been fed grasses and forbs as well. (I know this because some of my ex-students were hired to make the trip to eastern Washington to gather the sagebrush and care for the rabbits). I have asked repeatedly for the “lacking genetic diversity” data and no one has provided it.
Mr. Warren should not have allowed the intergrades that were produced by captive breeding to be defined as Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits. The last known one of those died a couple of years ago. That should have ended the funding for the captive breeding program.
Well, there were many warm and fuzzy press releases, but the captive breeding attempt could never have substituted for the application of responsibility that would have combined conservation with science, and no one was willing to act responsibly. Grazing was not the only thing that contributed to the extirpation of the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit, but it was a very major contributor (published scientific papers demonstrate this).
Science is seldom followed in these endangered species “interventions”. Politics trumps science -and conservation.
We need to remember the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit as an example of a form lost in part to the the insanity of Public Grazing.
Dr. Steve Herman
Even today, sagebrush is mowed, chained, burned and otherwise manipulated on vast expanses of public lands, to be replaced with more productive cattle forage – mostly non-native grasses largely useless to wildlife. Other human activities including development, energy transmission lines, roads, fences and others isolate small populations of pygmy rabbits from each-other. Not wanting, or able given exposure to predators, to cross open ground, pygmy rabbits are are unable to maintain genetic diversity and the number and success of offspring is largely limited by inbreeding. Fences and posts provide height for predator birds to prey on pygmy rabbits – height that otherwise does not exist in the vast Sagebrush Sea, and livestock crush pygmy rabbit burrows.
Although efforts to preserve the Columbia Basin gene have been supplemented with Idaho pygmy rabbits, the Idaho pygmy rabbit is also imperiled across nearly all of its range. Efforts are underway to gain protection for Idaho pygmy rabbits, Western Watersheds Project recently won a lawsuit against the Bush Interior Department forcing a new 90-day Finding which prompted a Status Review, currently underway.
Unfortunately, things aren’t looking good for pygmy rabbits in the immediate future; Mega wind-farms and energy transmission lines planned for development across public landscapes are increasingly threatening some of the last, best pygmy rabbit habitats in the West.