It may be the end of the road for an endangered species of rabbit. After eight years and several million dollars, federal officials will likely halt a program by the end of this year designed to save the Columbia basin pygmy rabbit from extinction, according to the Associated Press.
There are many endangered species out there that might face funding cuts, but this was one I’ve seen close-up: In April 2007, I spent a week with pygmy rabbits and the people trying desperately to save them in Washington State and Oregon for this story in The Scientist.
Here’s what I wrote then:
"The pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) is unique enough to have its own genus. They're the only nondomesticated North American rabbits that burrow, and they subsist almost entirely on sagebrush, a highly pungent plant full of terpenes that are normally poisonous to most other animals. On average, adults weigh just 400 grams and are only 25 centimeters long—about the length of a pencil. Their native habitat is the Great Basin of the U.S., extending from the Great Salt Lake in Utah and northwest to the state of Washington...
"The reliance on sagebrush growing in deep soil—for burrowing purposes—has probably created the biggest challenge for the species in the wild. The Columbia River, which forms much of the border between Oregon and Washington, is banked throughout most of its path by rolling hills covered in sagebrush, in soil that's perfect for pygmy rabbits and terrible for farmers. As engineers dammed the Columbia River in the last century, however, increasingly more of that land became arable, squeezing the rabbits out of their habitat. Sagebrush-rich habitat that still exists is often isolated from other habitats."
That isolation, and the resulting dwindling numbers, severely damaged the pygmy rabbits’ gene pool, making the animals prone to infection.
There are actually two subpopulations of pygmy rabbit: Columbia Basin and Idaho, which are just slightly better off. Officials could only find 16 rabbits when they went into a typical Columbia Basin habitat in 2001 and 2002.
They brought the handful of survivors to breeding facilities and began breeding them with one another as well as with hardier stock from Idaho The plan was to create a population of rabbits at least 75 percent genetically Columbia Basin, and then release the bunnies into the wild to see how they would fare. Just before I visited two zoos where vets were breeding the rabbits, however, one of had lost 11 out of their 20 rabbits. That meant that pygmy rabbit workers couldn’t release as many as they had planned in March 2007, and it was no surprise that barely any survived the test.
There has been some good news for the rabbits since then. A researcher found evidence that one was about to give birth in the wild, and a court told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that it had to consider protecting the Idaho subpopulation, which would have made recovery efforts easier.
But there was also bad news. One of the rabbits died in October 2007, and the last purebred Columbia Basin rabbit, named Bryn, died in captivity last year. Genetically, the Columbia Basin subpopulation became extinct then.
So it's not surprising that the Columbia Basin purebred program may end, and “shift from saving local genetics to building a population in the wild made up of crossbred and imported rabbits from Idaho,” the AP reports. In an e-mail yesterday, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) spokesperson Tom Buckley confirmed that “the program has run into some problems,” but said he wasn't sure what would happen next. “Exactly what will be done in the future will depend on what the managers of the FWS and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife determine,” Buckley wrote. “There are a few options available at this time for both agencies, and they may act in concert or independently on future actions.”
It’s with that not-so-great news for an endangered species that I introduce ScientificAmerican.com’s newest blogger, John Platt. Platt wrote the Extinction Blog for Plenty magazine, which stopped publishing last month. We’re not happy about the extinction of Plenty, which was a worthy competitor in some of our coverage areas. We are pleased, however, that Platt will now be the main author of our 60-Second Extinction Countdown blog. Here’s his first entry, on prairie dogs.
Bonus: Here’s a slide show that includes a photo of me with a pygmy rabbit.
Photo of a pygmy rabbit at Northwest Trek, in Eatonville, Wash., by Ivan Oransky, courtesy The Scientist