pygmy rabbit flickr bonny_jean13Good news: a native species—one that just happens to be rather cute — is back from the dead and about to return to the wild.

Here’s what happened. A few years ago, the Northwest came perilously close to losing a mammal to extinction: the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit. It lives—or lived anyway — in only one place on earth: the “shrub steppe habitat” (aka the desert), of central Washington. This choice of residences turned out to be a problem for our rabbit, because almost all of the sagebrush country of the Columbia Basin has been converted to agriculture or severely degraded.  

As the pygmy rabbit population dwindled toward oblivion, biologists employed a last-ditch tactic: they gathered up the remaining wild critters and began breeding them in captivity. The plan basically worked: next week officials will release 23 back into the wild, leaving many more behind in breeding programs.

Unfortunately, the Columbia rabbits did not breed like rabbits are supposed to. So in order to boost reproduction and prevent inbreeding, biologists crossed the Columbia Basin species with the genetically similar Idaho pygmy rabbit. So while each of the rabbits being released is at least 75 percent Columbia Basin stock, the pure bred species no longer exists (save for 3 still in captivity).

Still, I’ll take it. Officials are now working to ensure that there is sufficient sagebrush habitat to support wild rabbits. And habitat is the real challenge. Sagebrush landscapes generally don’t have the aesthetic appeal of old growth forests or coastlines, so it can be tougher to find the will and resources necessary for conservation. That’s doubly frustrating because acquiring and protecting sagebrush country is probably cheaper, easier, and more cost-effective per species than many of the more awe-inspiring landscapes.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user bonny_jean13 under a Creative Commons license.