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Range: AZ, CA, ID, MT, NV, OR, UT, WA, and WY
Status: Columbia Basin Distinct Population Segment in Washington State protected as Endangered
The pygmy rabbit is the smallest species of rabbit in North America.
They are shorter than one foot in length and typically live for three to five years. Pygmy rabbits are believed to be one of only two rabbit species in Northern America that dig its own burrows (the other is the Volcano rabbit).
Pygmy rabbits are herbivores found in the sagebrush ecosystem. They serve as prey for weasels, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, raptors, owls, ravens, crows, and foxes.
Information regarding population trends of pygmy rabbits is variable. Several states report that population trends are unknown. Other publications report that information regarding trends is limited, but generally pygmy rabbits are thought to be declining. Some populations have been extirpated, but there are several robust populations that occur in undisturbed habitats, resulting in the least concern designation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
A geographically isolated and genetically distinct population of pygmy rabbit is found in Washington State. This “Columbia Basin” pygmy rabbit is recognized as a distinct population segment and is protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
- USFWS Photos: Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit research station at Sagebrush Flats
- USFWS Blog: Small but mighty, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit scratches out a living in sagebrush
- USFWS Blog: The great (tiny) rabbit rodeo
- The Seattle Times: Quick-acting scientists save dozens of rare pygmy rabbits from Washington wildfire (July 2017)
Pygmy rabbits have gray fur that is sometimes tipped with brown on their upper back. The abdomen is typically white, tinged with buff. The legs, chest, and back of the neck are a cinnamon-brown color. The hind legs of pygmy rabbits are relatively short for a rabbit, with wide, heavily haired hind feet. Their small, rounded ears are also heavily furred. The tail is small and inconspicuous and lacks the white color indicative of other rabbits. Females are slightly larger than males.
Pygmy rabbits are associated with the sagebrush ecosystem. The species is typically found in areas of tall, dense sagebrush cover and they are highly dependent on the sagebrush plant for both food and shelter throughout the year. While pygmy rabbits can live outside of sagebrush habitats, they do not thrive in those habitats, and there are no published reports of pygmy rabbit burrows outside of sagebrush country.
Their burrows are typically found in relatively deep, loose soils of wind-borne or water-born origin, and they appear to avoid reddish-colored soils. Many other species use pygmy rabbit burrows, including badgers, black-tailed jackrabbits, least chipmunks, mountain cottontails, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, long-tailed weasels, and deer mice.
Pygmy rabbits occasionally make use of burrows abandoned by other species. As a result, they can be found in areas of shallower or more compact soils that support sufficient shrub cover.
Pygmy rabbits are herbivores that eat sagebrush plants year-round, along with grasses and forbs when seasonally available. Sagebrush comprises nearly half of the pygmy rabbit diet in the summer and up to 99% of the diet in the winter. Pygmy rabbits do not store food. They obtain all necessary water from their forage, but will drink of dew in the spring and summer.
Pygmy rabbits are endemic to shrub-steppe habitats. Their current range includes Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The species’ historical distribution is poorly known but assumed to have matched the distribution of big sagebrush. The current range is thought to have declined substantially from historic distributions, but the range in Nevada and California is reported to be similar to what was delineated in the 1940s. Their distribution is patchy within their sagebrush habitats.
Due to their reliance on sagebrush plants for survival, activities that reduce sagebrush cover and abundance, particularly of sagebrush islands, is likely to be detrimental to pygmy rabbits.
Habitat fragmentation, from activities like converting lands for agriculture and paved highways with frequent traffic, has resulted in the loss of genetic connectivity between populations. Anthropogenic, or human-made, features are more likely to result in genetic isolation than natural features such as streams.
The occurrence of fire was the best predictor for the loss of pygmy rabbit populations in Nevada and California. The presence of cheatgrass, an invasive weed, in the sagebrush understory is negatively associated with pygmy rabbit occurrence. The interaction between the expansion of cheatgrass and reduced wildfire intervals likely has significant impacts on the species. The encroachment of pinyon-juniper also negatively affects pygmy rabbits through resulting changes in the associated vegetative understory.
Livestock grazing can be compatible with pygmy rabbits, if it is well-managed, minimizes soil compaction, and leaves the sagebrush plants' leaves intact. However, areas with intense grazing that reduce shrub structural complexity are not likely to support populations of pygmy rabbits. Sagebrush treatments to reduce sagebrush cover and abundance may negatively impact pygmy rabbits, if applied in occupied or connectivity areas.
Sagebrush treatments in Wyoming did not result in the species’ extirpation, but did alter movement patterns due to the rabbit’s hesitation to cross areas with reduced shrub cover. Habitat fragmentation that limits movement and connectivity also affects the size, stability, and success of pygmy rabbit populations because of its impact on dispersal. Fragmentation also increases the risks from other factors, including climate change, predation, and inbreeding depression. Upward elevational shifts resulting from climate change have already been observed in Nevada.
The Service and our partners are working to re-establish a pygmy rabbit population in Washington. In 2011, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit breeding strategy was revised to increase the likelihood of successful population establishment. Currently, there are four breeding enclosures, and from fall 2011 through spring 2013, 109 pygmy rabbits were translocated from Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Wyoming and placed in the large enclosures with the remaining captive-bred adults and kits. Animals in the enclosures have produced over 2,000 kits since the 2011 breeding season, most of which have been released to the wild.
Annual survival of the released animals varies, but has been as high as 30%, and reproduction of fully wild animals has been documented. Monitoring of the wild pygmy rabbits is ongoing and a second release site has been identified. While estimation of dispersal, survival, and current population numbers is difficult, analysis of fecal samples confirms that at least 91 animals released in 2013 and 2014 remain in the wild at the Sagebrush Flats Wildlife Area, three of which were wild-born. We have successfully promoted semi-controlled breeding in these enclosures with pygmy rabbits from both the wild and captive-bred sources.
- No critical habitat has been designated for this species.
Recent Federal Register documents (in order of latest to oldest):
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