EPHRATA — With pillow cases hanging from their back pockets, metal toilet snakes capped with tennis balls coiled in their hands and dirt covering their jeans and shirts, Dave Volson and Chad Eidson looked like they were on some childhood adventure.
The two state biologists were in a group that spent two days last week crawling under sage brush and sticking their hands down rabbit holes looking for baby bunnies.
They didn’t go away empty handed.
“We’ve got rabbits coming out our ears,” said Penny Becker, a research scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It was an unexpected and celebrated turn of events in the rocky, decade-long effort to save the tiny endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit from extinction.
As of Friday afternoon, they had captured 80 baby pygmy rabbits at a sprawling rabbit reintroduction site in the Sage Brush Flat Wildlife Area, about 15 miles north of Ephrata.
Becker said there are still several babies still to be captured — and the fertile bunnies are only partway through their breeding season. There are now 130 adults and babies living in fenced enclosures and unknown numbers of them now roaming outside the pens in the wild.
Becker, who is managing the reintroduction project for the state, had hoped for 60 babies all year.
“It’s incredible. We didn’t expect this,” Volson said as he searched for babies last Friday. “It’s an embarassment of riches.”
Volson and Eidson teamed up to round up rabbits in a 6-acre fenced enclosure. To catch them, they pushed the ball-capped toilet snakes down the holes and then caught the bunnies in the pillow cases when they hopped out a second entrance.
At one burrow, the biologists each stuck their arm down an entrance and a tiny baby, weighing just 50 grams (about the weight of a half a stick of butter) hopped into Eidson’s hand.
“Those are the easy ones,” Volson said.
The babies were all weighed and marked for identification. Some were released back into the enclosure, some were moved to a new pen for rabbits that will be next year’s breeding stock, and some were outfitted with radio collars and released into the wild to start recolonizing the sagelands with pygmy rabbits.
Last year, the government’s efforts to save the tiny rabbit shifted from captive breeding, which failed to produce enough babies, to a field operation that is supplemented with pygmy rabbits from surrounding states.
The goal is to preserve at least some of the unique genes of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, which is protected under the federal Engangered Species Act, while mixing them with healthier populations of kindred rabbits across the West that are not in peril.
About two dozen of the Columbia Basin descendents born in captivity at the Oregon Zoo and 30 rabbits relocated from Oregon and Nevada were moved into two large enclosures at Sage Brush Flat last year. Twelve survived the winter and were joined by more imported and zoo rabbits this spring.
Those rabbits are now reproducing, well, as healthy rabbits should.
The last time there were this many known pygmy rabbits in Douglas County was at least two decades ago. No one knows for sure what caused the population to suddenly drop off, leaving just a dozen by the time they were all captured in 2002.
Likewise, no one knows for sure why they are thriving this spring.
“That’s pretty much the story of this whole (recovery) project,” Becker said. “They throw you for a loop at every turn.”
Michelle McNiel: 664-7152