The Pygmy Rabbit – The world’s smallest leporid

The adorable pygmy rabbit is the smallest bunny species in North America.

This tiny rabbit captured attention in previous years when it was placed on the endangered species list, and a captive breeding program was launched to help restore the population.

Their numbers have increased, but they are still threatened.

This guide covers pygmy rabbits, including the history of conservation efforts and basic facts about the animal.

Is the Pygmy Rabbit Extinct?

The pygmy rabbit is not extinct, but one population of pygmy rabbits came dangerously close to local extinction in 2001.

In Washington state, where a population of genetically distinct pygmy bunnies lives, their numbers were down to 16 in the early 2000s.

Where Do Pygmy Rabbits Live?

Pygmy rabbits live in several regions, including:

  • Southwestern Montana
  • Northeastern California
  • Southern Idaho
  • Central and northern Nevada
  • Central and eastern Oregon
  • Northwest Utah
  • Southeastern Washington

The endangered rabbits exclusive to Washington state are known as Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits and are genetically distinct from pygmy rabbits living in other states.

Only the Columbia Basin population is considered an endangered species by the U.S. federal government, although the International Union for Conservation of Nature puts these pygmy rabbits at a lower risk.

Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit
Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit

Why are pygmy rabbits endangered?

The pygmy rabbit population in Washington started going extinct due to habitat loss caused by land conversion, development, invasive species, and wildfire.

Early efforts to revitalize the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit population weren’t successful. In 2004, the scientists running the rabbits’ captive breeding program decided to breed the Columbia Basin population with the closely related Great Basin pygmy rabbits.

The project helped the population survive, and 25 percent of each new rabbit’s genes are pure Columbia Basin.

How Many Pygmy Rabbits are Left?

Since 2011, a joint project between the Oregon Zoo, Washington State University, Northwest Trek, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has helped reintroduce hundreds of pygmy rabbits into Washington’s sagebrush.

Conservation efforts

Scientists, government agencies, university departments, and other organizations have been working for almost two decades to help Washington state’s pygmy rabbits survive and repopulate.

They faced obstacles throughout the years, like the spread of disease that brought down reproduction rates due to semi-wild breeding enclosures. The Washington sagebrush is also at risk for wildfires, which not only destroys the pygmy rabbits’ habitat but also their ecosystem.

The newer populations are hardier and dispersed over a wider geographic area than previous rabbits, so they’re more likely to survive than their ancestors.

Today, their habitat is managed through the Sagelands Heritage Program run by wildlife protection organization Conservation Northwest, as well as by the WDFW.

Can You Have a Pygmy Rabbit as a Pet?

As a wild and endangered animal, the pygmy rabbit is not suitable as a pet. They’re not a recognized breed with the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA), so they’re not bred and raised for competitions.

Nor are they kept as household pets.

Since the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits are endangered and conservation efforts are underway to protect them and their habitat, it’s not recommended to try to capture one in the wild to have as a pet at home.

Facts About the Pygmy Rabbit

The pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) is the smallest rabbit species in North America, described as the size of a grapefruit. They weigh up to one pound and are just below one foot in length. These bunnies live between three and five years and usually have their lives cut short by predators. Pygmy bunnies are also one of only two species in the United States that dig their own burrows.

Physical description

Apart from their size, pygmy rabbits have a few other characteristics that set them apart from other bunnies. Their ears are relatively small for a rabbit, and their soft, fluffy fur helps them maintain a constant internal temperature in harsh weather conditions. They are a brownish-gray color, turning slightly browner in the summer and slightly grayer in the winter.

Diet and habits

Sagebrush serves as more than pygmy rabbits’ living quarters – it makes up 99 percent of their diet too! They rely heavily on these shrubs in the winter, but it only comprises 30-40 percent of their diet in summer. Due to their tiny size, pygmy rabbits are easy prey in the wild. They dig burrows to hide and protect their young. After giving birth to a litter of kits, mothers will keep their young in the burrow nest for about two weeks, returning each day to nurse them.

Temperament

Pygmy rabbits are wild animals with a small population – it’s no wonder we know so little about their behavior. We do know that they tend to be timid and skittish, like most rabbits. They’re also unaccustomed to being around humans, despite being part of the breeding program.

The program was meant to reintroduce pygmy rabbits into the wild as seamlessly as possible after they’d reproduced, so limiting contact with human handlers during this process was preferable.

Habitat

Pygmy rabbits live in areas with tall grasses and deep soil. They need tall brush to hide in and eat, and they need soil suitable for digging burrows. These tiny rabbits also venture out as far as 330 feet from their homes.

When snow covers the ground, the pygmy rabbit will tunnel beneath the snow to find food. These snow tunnels form a network, allowing the small bunnies to move around while staying beneath the layer of snow.

Final Thoughts on the Pygmy Rabbit

The tiny pygmy rabbit is a fascinating animal with an interesting conservation story.

Many organizations, agencies, and individuals have invested time and resources to help keep the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit from dying out. While Pigmy Rabbits can’t be kept as pets, it’s still vital to protect these creatures in the wild.

They may be small, but they contribute greatly to the biodiversity of central Washington and other states they inhabit.

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