FWS Focus

Overview

Characteristics
Overview

With adults weighing less than one pound, the pygmy rabbit is the smallest species of rabbit in North America. In Washington State’s Columbia Basin, the remaining pygmy rabbit population is endangered and faces compounding threats. The fracturing of its shrub-steppe home in Central Washington, an increasing occurrence of wildfire, and a new form of rabbit hemorrhagic disease all push the species toward extinction in the region.

See a video about recovery efforts for the Columbia basin pygmy rabbit 

Scientific Name

Brachylagus idahoensis
Common Name
Pygmy Rabbit
Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit
FWS Category
Mammals
Kingdom

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers

TSN:

Characteristics

Characteristic category

Habitat

Characteristics
Habitat

Pygmy rabbits are typically found in areas that include tall, dense stands of sagebrush sagebrush
The western United States’ sagebrush country encompasses over 175 million acres of public and private lands. The sagebrush landscape provides many benefits to our rural economies and communities, and it serves as crucial habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the iconic greater sage-grouse and over 350 other species.

Learn more about sagebrush
(Artemisia spp.). This sagebrush sea acts as a forest in miniature for these tiny rabbits, providing both shelter and food. This species digs its own burrows, which are typically found in deep, loose soils.  However, pygmy rabbits occasionally do make use of burrows abandoned by other species, such as the yellow-bellied marmot.

Given the pygmy rabbits’ high dependence on sagebrush for food and shelter, large-scale loss and fragmentation of native shrub-steppe habitat has played a primary role in the long-term decline of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit.

Grassland

Ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

Grassland

Ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

Grassland

Ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

Characteristic category

Food

Characteristics
Food

While pygmy rabbits eat mostly sagebrush sagebrush
The western United States’ sagebrush country encompasses over 175 million acres of public and private lands. The sagebrush landscape provides many benefits to our rural economies and communities, and it serves as crucial habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the iconic greater sage-grouse and over 350 other species.

Learn more about sagebrush
in the winter months, they seek out a more varied diet in the spring and summer months by adding grasses, particularly native bunchgrasses.

Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Characteristics
Size & Shape

Adults range between 9.3 and 11.6 inches in length and weigh less than a pound, making it the smallest rabbit in North America. Fur color varies from brown to dark grey with white around the margins of their short, round ears. They are distinguishable from other Leporids by their small size, short ears, small hind legs and lack of white on their tail.

Characteristic category

Life Cycle

Characteristics
Life Cycle

Breeding for the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit occurs from February through July. Females may have up to three litters per year and average six young per litter. Pregnant females dig secret, relatively shallow burrows, known as natal burrows. They begin to dig and supply nesting material to these burrows several days prior to giving birth, and may give birth and nurse young in the runway to the burrow’s entrance. After nursing, the young return to the burrow and the female fills the burrow entrance with loose soil to disguise the immediate area and avoid detection.

Pygmy rabbits are preyed upon by weasels, coyotes, badgers, bobcats, birds of prey, owls, foxes and sometimes humans, who sometimes have difficulty distinguishing 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.

Geography

Characteristics
Range

The pygmy rabbit’s historical range includes portions of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, California, Nevada and Utah.

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit in Washington appears to have become genetically isolated at least 10,000 years ago. There is little information available regarding the historic distribution and abundance of pygmy rabbits in Washington. Records indicate that during the first half of the 1900s, they probably occurred in Douglas, Grant, Lincoln, Adams and Benton counties. Between 1987 and 1988, five small colonies of pygmy rabbits were found in southern Douglas County. A sixth colony was discovered in 1997 in Grant County.

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Timeline

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