BLM firefighters save dozens of endangered pygmy rabbits from wildfire

WDFW technician Jenna Outwater, University of Idaho student Austin Dupuis and an unidentified BLM firefighter search burrows for surviving pygmy rabbits. Photo by Devon Comstock, WDFW

July 7, 2017 – BLM firefighters helped save dozens of endangered pygmy rabbits after a central Washington wildfire swept across a state-managed breeding ground last week.

The Sutherland Canyon Fire, which has burned nearly 38,000 acres on both sides of the Columbia River south of Wenatchee, overran the controlled sagebrush breeding ground last Wednesday night.

After the wind-blown wildfire swept through, BLM firefighters escorted a state wildlife biologist to the area and quickly mobilized into a “capture team,” according to Richard Parrish, a BLM fire management officer based in Spokane.

“Everybody was really excited to be a part of that,” said Parrish of the seven-member BLM team.

The ground and most the sagebrush that the pygmy rabbits rely on were charred black. In some areas, the soil was still warm to the touch.

A rescued pygmy rabbit held by a firefighter — Photo by Richard Parrish, BLM

Regardless, for the next five or six hours, the team got on their bellies and reached for life down into the rabbit burrows.

“The BLM reserve fire crew was amazing,” said Matt Monda, regional manager for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. “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.”

Pygmy rabbits are the smallest species of rabbit in North America, weighing a pound and easily fitting in a person’s hand. Their lifespan is only a few years and their diet is almost entirely sagebrush.

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit was listed as endangered in 2003 under the Endangered Species Act.

In all, 32 pygmy rabbits were evacuated from the wildfire-scorched breeding ground. Washington wildlife officials estimate that 70 rabbits died in the fire.

“Wildfires are a fact of life here in sagebrush country,” said Monda in a WDFW release. “The fire was a setback for our restoration program, but we can start making up for those losses next year,” he added.

Since 2011, hundreds of pygmy rabbits have been released into the wild thanks to the program, which partners with federal agencies, universities, zoos and conservation organizations.

The lightning-started Sutherland Canyon Fire is now 90 percent contained and the surviving pygmy rabbits were transported to other nearby breeding compounds.

Read more about the pygmy rabbit conservation program in Washington: http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/pygmy_rabbit/

See a pygmy rabbit get released in southern Oregon: https://goo.gl/9SmnzS