What's cuter than bunnies? Pygmy bunnies! What's cuter than pygmy bunnies? Baby pygmy bunnies!
While they're unbelievably cute, these little guys are more than just adorable - they're the last remaining hope for their local population. Pygmy rabbits were once found throughout the Northwestern United States in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, California, and Nevada. In 1990, declining populations due to habitat loss led to the rabbits being listed as threatened, and further decline placed them on the federal endangered species list in 2003.
Recently, searches for wild populations in the Columbia Basin (Washington area) have come up empty-handed, though the cause behind the sudden disappearance in that area is not well understood. The dire situation led to the initiation of a captive breeding program for these minuscule bunnies by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the last group sighted were scooped up for their protection. Genetic work has shown that the sub-population has lost much of its genetic diversity since the 1990s, leading to inbreeding which has hampered their reproductive rate.
The photos above are from the most recent litter of 26 babies produced by proud parents and zookeepers at the Oregon Zoo. These aren't entirely Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits - they had to be interbred with Idaho pygmy rabbits because the Columbia Basin animals were breeding so poorly in captivity. The program hopes to produce animals that have at least 75 percent of their genetic makeup from the Columbia Basin, which will then be release back into the wild. Release studies in Idaho suggest that once they have enough rabbits, re-release into the Columbia Basin will be successful.
However, these rabbits will never do well unless we protect their dwindling shrub-steppe habitat. To date, WDFW, The Nature Conservancy and one private landowner have acquired lands to be managed for pygmy rabbits. Further protections must take place or these baby bunnies will be out of luck. It just goes to show you that any animal can be threatened with extinction by human activities - even those that breed like, well, rabbits.