SAGEBRUSH FLAT, Wash. (AP) — Gizmo was gently pulled from his straw-lined pet carrier and deposited in the dirt under a scrubby sagebrush.
After more than three years of coddling and hand-care in captivity at Washington State University and then the Oregon Zoo, the small Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit moved Thursday into natural habitat in the sage lands of Douglas County.
No more protective home. No more daily cleanings of his burrow or deliveries of lettuce greens and rabbit pellets from loving caretakers. And no more cute name.
“It’s tough love out here,” said Penny Becker, a research scientist who is overseeing the rabbit project for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The rabbit was one of 12 transferred Thursday from the zoo in Portland to the sprawling rabbit reintroduction site in the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area, about 15 miles north of Ephrata.
They joined 30 wild pygmy rabbits relocated to the site from Oregon and Nevada over the last two weeks and about a dozen other Oregon Zoo rabbits released there last spring.
They are all being held in a 6-acre enclosure or a nearby 10-acre enclosure, both ringed with tall wire fencing to keep out four-legged predators.
The state and federal effort to save the tiny critically endangered animal is entering a new phase. After a decade of mixed success trying to breed the rabbits in captivity - and one failed effort in 2007 to release them into the wild - government agencies are phasing out the breeding program.
While pygmy rabbits across the West are not protected, the Columbia Basin ones are protected under federal Endangered Species Act because their numbers in the wild had dwindled to near extinction. They are considered to be slightly different than other pygmy rabbits across the West because they have been geographically separated from any other populations of the rabbits for at least 10,000 years.
The last known Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits were captured from the wild in 2001.
However, they did not breed well in captivity, and they were eventually cross-bred with Idaho pygmy rabbits in an attempt to preserve at least some of their unique genes.
But even that program failed to produce enough babies to reintroduce into the wild in great numbers. The first attempt to release them, in 2007, ended with 18 of the 20 rabbits being eaten by predators and the remaining two being recaptured after they wandered outside the habitat.
Meanwhile, the numbers of rabbits in the breeding program continued to drop as they died from diseases. The breeding operations at Washington State University and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park near Tacoma have now ended. The only other breeding site, at the Oregon Zoo, will likely shut down next spring, Becker said.
The new plan is to release the rabbits that have been born and raised in captivity and, at the same time, import rabbits from other Western states to beef up the population. The hope is that babies born in the wild - rather than in a zoo - will be hardier and less prone to diseases.
For now, the animals will be held in the large enclosures at Sagebrush Flat for an undetermined amount of time to make sure they survive and breed. Most of the babies they produce in the fenced areas will be trapped and released outside the fences - directly into the wild.
Over the summer, 50 baby rabbits born at the zoo or at the Douglas County site were set free in the wild. It is not known how well they are doing, though there is some evidence that they are digging burrows, Becker said.
Extensive surveys will be done over the winter to count those rabbits and assess how the ones in the enclosures are faring.
Becker and others involved in the program are constantly adapting and changing things as they go.
“Nobody’s reintroduced pygmy rabbits before,” she said. “So it’s all new.”
More of the zoo rabbits will be brought to the site next spring, along with more wild rabbits that will be captured in Nevada and Utah. Becker said she doesn’t know how many of the animals will eventually be brought there. It all depends on how well they reproduce and survive at the site.
Becker would not speculate how long it will take to build a healthy pygmy rabbit population in the area.
“We are so far away from that right now that it’s hard to imagine,” she said.
The zoo rabbits released Thursday will have to make a new home in either human-made or rabbit-dug burrows inside the fenced areas and forage for their own food among the sage brush.
Becker will provide some pellets and greens for the rabbits a couple of times a week. But much of their food will now come from the wild. They also must protect themselves from winged threats like harriers and great-horned owls.
As the bunnies were released one by one from their carriers, Leanne Klinski, who has lovingly worked with many of the rabbits at the Oregon Zoo for the last three years, said her goodbyes. She had a hand in naming many of them, and daily attended to their every need.
First to be released was Tails. Colorado was next. Then it was Gizmo’s turn.
“Bye Gizzie,” Klinski called out, as he hopped into the sagebrush.
Klinski’s father, who helped drive the rabbits from Oregon, said, “Leanne’s rabbits are used to daily maid service.”
“Well, they won’t get that out here,” Becker said. “They’ve got to make it on their own now.”
Information from: The Wenatchee World, http://www.wenatcheeworld.com