In 2001, there were just 16 pygmy rabbits living in the wild in Washington state. Thanks to breeding programs at zoos and universities, and protection under the Endangered Species Act, North America’s smallest rabbit species started to make a comeback. So when the Sutherland Canyon wildfire swept through the sagebrush of eastern Washington at the end of June, biologists were worried about the rabbits living at a special breeding site. They decided to stage a rescue as soon as the area was safe.
A team of biologists and firefighters found 32 rabbits—out of about 100—who survived the fire by retreating into their burrows. Rescuers found some still underground, while others had made their way to a tiny patch of surviving sagebrush. Sagebrush makes up nearly all of the rabbits’ diet, and provides them cover from predators. The destruction wrought by the fire means that the breeding site is now uninhabitable for rabbits—at least until the sagebrush grows back.
“The fire was a setback for our restoration program, but we can start making up for those losses next year,” said Matt Monda, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional wildlife manager, in a statement. “Wildfires are a fact of life here in sagebrush country, which is a major reason why we don’t keep all of the rabbits in one place.” The survivors were taken to two nearby breeding sites, where they join about 70 others.