SPOKANE, Wash. -- For the first time in a decade, the endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has successfully bred in its historic range.
A litter of kits has been confirmed in a 6-acre enclosure at the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in central Washington, where conservationists are reintroducing the tiny rabbits to the basin.
The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit in North America, and can fit in a person's hand. Adults weigh about a pound and measure less than a foot in length.
So far this year, 93 pygmy rabbits have been reintroduced at the wildlife area, all bred at the Oregon Zoo and Washington State University.
Until this release, there were no Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits known to be left in the wild since 2004. Disease, inbreeding, loss of habitat and other factors nearly wiped them out.
To protect them from predators and encourage breeding, the released rabbits are initially kept in wire mesh enclosures before being slowly released into the wild.
That system was developed after a reintroduction attempt in 2007 that ended in disaster when all 20 rabbits were consumed by predators or died before they could breed.
"To ensure a better result, we're releasing nearly five times the number of rabbits at a time as we did last time," said David Shepherdson, deputy conservation manager at Oregon Zoo.
Pygmy rabbits exist in many other states, but the Columbia Basin breed is genetically distinct.
In 2002, the remaining 16 Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits were placed into breeding programs at the Oregon Zoo, Washington State University and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Washington in an effort to save the species. In 2003, the rabbit was listed as endangered.
To strengthen the Columbia Basin stock, the rabbits have been cross-bred with wild pygmy rabbits from Idaho. Cross-breeding of the rabbits was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.