Species Fact Sheet Pygmy rabbit Brachylagus idahoensis
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STATUS: Species of Concern
Oregon populations of the pygmy
rabbit are listed as a species of concern under the Endangered
Species Act. (In 2003, a Distinct Population
Segment of the pygmy rabbit in Washington was listed as
endangered.) After completing a 12-month status review in September 2010, the USFWS concluded the pygmy rabbit does not warrant Endangered Species Act protection.
Historical Status and Current Trends
The pygmy rabbit’s historical range includes portions
of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, California,
Nevada, and Utah. Currently in Oregon, pygmy rabbits
are found in several eastern Oregon counties, although biologists
are unsure about the number of rabbits in the wild. On
March 5, 2003, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit (considered
a Distinct Population Segment), was listed as endangered in
Pygmy rabbits are typically found in areas that include tall,
dense stands of sagebrush (Artemisia spp.), and are
highly dependent on sagebrush to provide both food and shelter
throughout the year. During winter months the rabbits'
diet consists of up to 98 percent sagebrush. In
the summer and spring months, their diet becomes more varied,
including more grass and new foliage.
The pygmy rabbit digs its own burrows, which are typically
found in deep, loose soils. However, pygmy rabbits occasionally
make use of burrows abandoned by other species and, as a result,
may occur in areas of shallower or more compact soils that
support sufficient shrub cover.
The pygmy rabbit is unique enough to have its own genus, Brachylagus. Weighing
less than a pound (.45 kilograms), pygmy rabbits are the smallest
rabbit in North America and can easily fit in the palm of
a hand. Ffur color varies from brown to dark
grey with white around the margins of their short, round ears.
The rabbits' ears and feet are densely covered in hair and
they have a very short tail. Several
traits set them apart from cottontails (Sylvilagus)
and jackrabbits (Lepus). Pygmies are the only
North American rabbits that dig their own burrows, and they
subsist almost entirely on sagebrush. They also give alarm
calls and other vocalizations, indicating some degree of sociality.
Pygmy rabbits breed in early spring, having up to three litters
per year and averaging six young per litter. Recent
information on captive and wild pygmy rabbits indicates that
pregnant females dig secret, relatively shallow burrows, known
as natal burrows. These natal burrows are found in the
vicinity of the pygmy rabbit’s regular burrows, which
are used to give birth in and for nursing and early rearing
of their litters.
Pygmy rabbits are preyed upon by weasels, coyotes, badgers,
bobcats, birds of prey, owls, foxes, and sometimes humans
(pygmy rabbits are sometimes difficult for hunters to distinguish
from other rabbit species). Predation is the primary
cause of mortality among both adults and juveniles and can
be as high as 50 percent in the first five weeks of life. Like
other rabbits, pygmy rabbits mainly try to stay hidden and
are cryptically colored to avoid predation. They are also
capable of short bursts of speed to try and escape predators.
Reasons for Decline
Loss of sagebrush, upon which pygmy rabbits are highly dependent
for food and shelter, is the main reason for the decline
of pygmy rabbit populations. Much sagebrush has been burned
or converted to agriculture. Sagebrush is often cleared from
large areas and replaced with exotic bunch grasses to improve
livestock forage. Wildfires
and invasive plants also pose a threat to the rabbits' habitat.
Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting
a study to determine if pygmy rabbits should be protected
under the Endangered Species Act (see Federal Register Notice
addition, the Oregon Zoo is breeding pygmy rabbits which
will be reintroduced to protected habitats in eastern Oregon.