WDFW monitors surviving pygmy rabbits after wildfire overruns br - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

WDFW monitors surviving pygmy rabbits after wildfire overruns breeding enclosure

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EPHRATA, WA – Wildlife managers are monitoring 32 endangered pygmy rabbits evacuated from a state-managed breeding facility scorched by a wildfire last week in Douglas County near Quincy.

Two of those rabbits were found today by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists, who continue to search for survivors of the blaze.

They estimate that about 70 other rabbits died the night of June 28 when the Sutherland Canyon wildfire overran the 10-acre Beezley Hills breeding compound operated by WDFW on property purchased by a private landowner to support the species’ recovery.

Partners in the project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Nature Conservancy.

Matt Monda, WDFW regional wildlife manager, said state biologists and reserve firefighters from the Wenatchee field office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) worked side-by-side to save as many rabbits as they could the day after the wind-fanned wildfire burned through the area.

Three researchers from the University of Idaho also participated in the rescue effort.

“The BLM reserve fire crew was amazing,” Monda said. “While waiting to be assigned to fire duty, they joined our staff to rescue the survivors, which escaped the flames by retreating into their burrows.”

Many of those rabbits were found the next day in a small patch of sagebrush still standing on the charred landscape. Monda credits Jon Gallie, WDFW’s lead biologist at the facility, for his quick thinking in protecting those plants as the fire drew near.

“Jon retrofitted the compound’s irrigation system to saturate that patch of vegetation to keep it alive,” Monda said. “Sagebrush provides both food and cover for pygmy rabbits, so it’s essential to their survival.”

The survivors have been transported to two other WDFW breeding compounds, both within about 20 miles from Beezley Hills. In all, Monda estimates that WDFW is now sheltering about 100 pygmy rabbits at those facilities.

“The fire was a setback for our restoration program, but we can start making up for those losses next year,” Monda said. “Wildfires are a fact of life here in sagebrush country, which is a major reason why we don’t keep all of the rabbits in one place.”  

The Sutherland Canyon fire, sparked by a lightning strike, burned nearly 30,000 acres in Douglas and Grant counties before it was contained July 3.

Small enough to fit in a person’s hand, pygmy rabbits lived in the shrub-steppe of central Washington for more than 100,000 years. But the species’ population has declined dramatically over the past century, due primarily to the loss of native habitat.

By 2001, there were only 16 known pygmy rabbits in Washington state. The species was listed as endangered under state law in 1993 and under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2003.

Since 2011, WDFW has released hundreds of pygmy rabbits into the wild as part of a restoration effort involving USFWS, universities, zoos and conservation organizations such as the Nature Conservancy. The goal of these efforts is to restore the species’ population to sustainable levels.

Eric Rickerson, state supervisor for USFWS, said that partnership is essential to the success of those efforts.

“Recovering wildlife such as the pygmy rabbit is a team effort, and we would not have been able to accomplish as much as we have without the continued support of WDFW, Washington State University, the Oregon Zoo and many others,” he said. “The expertise, dedicated work force, and scientific contributions of our partners are vital, and a fire will not shake our determination to recover this endangered species.”

WDFW is accepting donations to help support recovery efforts for pygmy rabbits in Washington state. Checks designated for “pygmy rabbit restoration” may be sent to  Fiscal Office, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, PO Box 43160, Olympia WA 98504-3160.