The 130 pygmy rabbits captured in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon represent the survival of the species in Washington State. The rabbits are breeding in protective enclosures in the shrub-steppes of Eastern Washington.
The newborn kits are dashing about and hiding in a mixture of natural and manmade burrows. The enclosures are staked over several acres each.
State Fish and Wildlife biologists hope the rabbits will produce enough offspring to bring back the endangered animals from the edge of extinction on the Columbia Basin.
A combination of natural disasters like floods and fires, along with expanding agricultural uses are blamed for the rapid decline of the pygmy rabbit population.
In 2001, after the state population dropped to less than 40 pygmy rabbits, WDF&W captured the last known 16 breeding pairs in hopes of bolstering the population in captivity. It didn't work.
"Pygmy rabbits do not do well in captivity," explained WDF&W biologist Penny Becker.
So they came up with the enclosure idea and brought in the rabbits from other states to depend the gene pool. That is working. The numbers are coming up and the offspring look healthy and ready to make it on their own.
There's more than just the pygmies at stake here.
"Everything likes to eat pygmy rabbits," said Becker as she snuck up on a kit resting under a sagebrush. Raptors, coyotes, badgers and other natives to steppe country depend on the little rabbits to keep their populations healthy.
Some of the pygmy rabbits are already living and thriving outside the enclosures. The future of the species in this region depends and the kits being born on the other side of the fences.