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Pygmy Rabbits in Peril in the U.S.A.

Lisa Shipley


The decline of pygmy rabbits in the Columbia Basin in Washington State indicate trouble for groups of these animals elsewhere in the U.S. Using the ideas presented here, other organizations can

  • discover what types of diseases and predators afflict the species;
  • gather information about preserving habitat; and
  • learn how to initiate repopulation in threatened areas.

February 2008

Rabbits are not thought of as endangered species.

It is ironic that rabbits are a symbol of fertility throughout the world. Recent estimates suggest that 25% of rabbit species worldwide are declining or endangered. Examples of declining rabbit species include:

An endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit juvenile born at the captive breeding facility at Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, USA. Photo: Tara Davila

  • Brazilian rabbit—Brazil
  • Volcano rabbit— Mexico
  • Amami rabbit—Japan
  • Riverine rabbit—South Africa
  • California brush rabbit—USA
  • Pygmy rabbit—USA
Pygmy rabbits and their sagebrush habitats are in peril.

Until recently, the status of pygmy rabbit populations in the U.S has received little attention. Their range consists of the Great Basin and surrounding intermountain regions, including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. There is one exception—the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit. It was extirpated from the wild in Washington by 2004, and this genetically distinct population was listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered distinct population.

Subsequent surveys documented the disappearance of many historic populations in other states in which pygmy rabbits reside—all of which now classify pygmy rabbits as “a species of concern” or “vulnerable.” Although pygmy rabbits are also considered a federal “species at risk,” the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined petitions for listing pygmy rabbits as threatened range wide—citing insufficient evidence and inconsistent survey techniques.

Lisa Shipley, Ph.D., is a wildlife ecologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Her research focuses on foraging behavior, nutrition, and habitat requirements of wildlife. She directs the pygmy rabbit captive breeding program at Washington State University and is a member of the USFWS Recovery Team for pygmy rabbits.

Pygmy Rabbits in Peril in the U.S.A.

Washington State Pygmy Plan

For a look at the complete Washington State Pygmy Recovery Plan, visit

Pygmy Rabbit Information

An overview from the Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife.

What can I do?

There are multiple non-profit and government environmental organizations that can help you learn more and get involved. Including: Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA) located in Laramie, WY:

Idaho National Laboratory NERP

Designated as a National Environmental Research Park (NERP) in 1975—due to demand from local citizens, scientists, and Congress—this property is designated as protected land for preservation purposes, as well as to serve as a biological research site. For more details see

U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Environmental Conservation Online System (ecos)

Notes and References
1. wiki 2007. (accessed December 10, 2007)
2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Species Profile, Pygmy rabbits. 2007. (accessed December 10, 2007).
3. Definition Sagebrush Steppe. 2007. (accessed December 10, 2007).
4. For more about the details of the Columbia Basin problem specifically, see:
5. For details and abstract, see the USDA website,

  • » Elias, B. A., L. A. Shipley, R. D. Sayler, and R. S. Lamson. 2006. Mating behavior and parental care in captive pygmy rabbits. Journal of Mammalogy 87: 921–928.
  • » Federal Register. March 5, 2003. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; final rule to list the Columbia Basin distinct population segment of the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis) as endangered. Federal Register 68: 10,388–10,409.
  • » Federal Register. May 20, 2005. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants: 90-day finding on petition to list the pygmy rabbit as threatened and endangered. Federal Register 70: 29,253–29,265.
  • » Gahr, M. L. 1993. Natural history, burrow habitat use, and home range of the pygmy rabbit of Sagebrush Flats, Washington. M.S. thesis, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.
  • » Hays, D. 2001. 2001 Addendum: Washington state recovery plan for the pygmy rabbit. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Olympia, Washington. 24pp.
  • » Hays, D., and K. Warheit. 2004. Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit captive breeding and genetic management plan. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Olympia, Washington. 29pp.
  • » McAllister, K. R. 1995. Washington state recovery plan for the pygmy rabbit. Wildlife Management Program, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, WA.
  • » Rachlow, J. L., D. M. Sanchez, and W. A. Estes-Zump. 2005. Natal burrows and nests of free-ranging pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis). Western North American Naturalist 65: 136–139.
  • » Shipley, L.. A., T. B. Davila, N. J. Thines, and B. A. Elias. 2006. Nutritional requirements and diet choices of the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis): A sagebrush specialist. Journal of Chemical Ecology 32: 2455–2474.
  • » Thines N. J., L. A. Shipley, and R. D. Sayler. 2004. Effects of cattle grazing on ecology and habitat of Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis). Biological Conservation 119: 525–534.
  • » U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2007. Draft recovery plan for the Columbia Basin distinct population segment of the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis). Portland, Oregon. 118. pp, (accessed 1/10/08; updated 6/29/10).


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