EPHRATA — It’s just a few days before Easter, but don’t mention that famous egg-hiding bunny to pygmy rabbit savior Penny Becker.
“This is all about conservation and recovery out here,” Becker said Tuesday at the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area in remote Douglas County. “I’d rather it not be all that cutesy-cutesy stuff.”
So you won’t find any baskets filled with chocolate and colored eggs in the wildlife area. But you will find a fresh crop of pygmy rabbits relocated from Oregon and Wyoming last week.
Under Becker’s watchful eye, the endangered rabbits are continuing to make a comeback. The state added a second breeding site this spring near Jameson Lake and they have determined that rabbits released into the wild last year have roamed out of the wildlife area and onto surrounding conservation lands up to five miles away.
“We are really, really thrilled,” Becker said.
At least 40 percent of the rabbits at the Sage Brush Flat recovery site survived the winter — far above the typical 10 to 22 percent survival rate for pygmy rabbits throughout the West.
In a few weeks, state wildlife experts will begin their annual roundup of babies to determine which ones will be released into the wild and which will be kept for future breeding.
They have also added another breeding pen at Sagebrush Flat to start working on fostering the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit genetics. For the last two years, the program has focused more on increasing the rabbits’ numbers through relocations rather than making sure the genetics of the local rabbits are preserved.
There are now more than 100 pygmy rabbits in the recovery program. That’s encouraging, but it’s far from recovery of the critically endangered species.
Becker said there needs to be at least 500 rabbits thriving in five different locations for state and federal agencies to consider removing the rabbits from the endangered species list. That could still be years away.
But the fact that they added a new breeding enclosure at a second location near Jameson Lake, and may begin building pens in other areas of Douglas County later this year.
“It means we’re finally figuring it out with this species,” she said. “We’re getting our strategy in order at this site and when we do, we feel pretty confident that we can make it work at other sites, too.”
The agency is starting to work on agreements with property owners that will protect their rights if endangered rabbits roam onto their properties.
Michelle McNiel: 664-7152