The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is now genetically extinct

This loss highlights the importance of genetic interchange and landscape-level habitat preservation

Photo Courtesy USFWS
Photo Courtesy USFWS

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit has been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act but efforts to restore the bunny have been unsuccesful.  Even efforts at maintaining as much of the Columbia Basin ancestory/gene by interbreeding with Idaho pygmy rabbits are not looking good.

Last-ditch effort to save pygmy rabbits near an endWenatchee Work Online

Pygmy rabbits are very timid animals, not prone to travel large distances or cross open spaces without cover from predators.  Fragmentation and manipulation of habitat associated with development, livestock grazing, and other activities that degrade the thick old-growth sagebrush pygmy rabbits need to survive is largely responsible for the imperilment of the rabbits.

Update – Dr. Steve Herman explains some history :

This may be our best current example of a subspecies (“species”, by ESA definition) being stomped into extinction by Public Grazing.  The last place where Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits were found was Sagebrush Flat, which was that last large hunk of deep-soiled sagebrush in Washington.  When it became obvious that this was the last place this burrowing rabbit survived, the area was “managed” by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.  I had worked for years trying to get the cows off, because the grazing clearly was at odds with the rabbits (trampling burrows and eating grasses and forbs necessary for reproduction).  Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists championed the cows, one of them claiming, “Steve, we’re concerned if we lose the cows we’ll lose the rabbits.”

So the cowheads got together, formed a Coordinated Resource Management Committee and planned for more grazing.  The WDFW bought the acreage from WDNR for a huge amount of money, then increased the grazing in a program that included bringing water to portions of the area that had been beyond the range of cattle earlier.  New wells were drilled, new water distribution systems were installed, and the number of cattle was increased.  The mantra of the CRM Committee was, “The cows and the rabbits have been together for a hundred years, so there’s no doubt that they’re compatible”.

It wasn’t long before I began getting calls from frantic WDFW personnel on the ground (these were essentially “anonymous”) reporting collapsed active burrows, scorched earth between sagebrush plants, and other insults in the relatively small area where the rabbits were holding out.  But the WDFW had instituted an elaborate “monitoring” scheme that conveniently sidestepped reality, and their “data” showed “no impact” from the cows.

When the rabbits were down to fewer than 20, the decision was made to take them all into captivity.  Of course this was greeted with enthusiasm and confidence that the danger was over; it was just a matter of time before the problem would be solved.  Such is the glamour of captive breeding programs in our day.  Everyone loves them, in part because “we” are going to solve “nature’s problems”.

The captive breeding program was botched from the beginning.  The rabbits sent to the Portland Zoo were fed nothing but sagebrush for at least months (science was never part of this program or the whole Pygmy Rabbit equation) when they should have been fed grasses and forbs as well.  (I know this because some of my ex-students were hired to make the trip to eastern Washington to gather the sagebrush and care for the rabbits).  I have asked repeatedly for the “lacking genetic diversity” data and no one has provided it.

Mr. Warren should not have allowed the intergrades that were produced by captive breeding to be defined as Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits.  The last known one of those died a couple of years ago.  That should have ended the funding for the captive breeding program.

Well, there were many warm and fuzzy press releases, but the captive breeding attempt could never have substituted for the application of responsibility that would have combined conservation with science, and no one was willing to act responsibly.  Grazing was not the only thing that contributed to the extirpation of the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit, but it was a very major contributor (published scientific papers demonstrate this).

Science is seldom followed in these endangered species “interventions”.  Politics trumps science -and conservation.

We need to remember the Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit as an example of a form lost in part to the the insanity of Public Grazing.

Dr. Steve Herman

Even today, sagebrush is mowed, chained, burned and otherwise manipulated on vast expanses of public lands, to be replaced with more productive cattle forage – mostly non-native grasses largely useless to wildlife.  Other human activities including development, energy transmission lines,  roads, fences and others isolate small populations of pygmy rabbits from each-other.  Not wanting, or able given exposure to predators, to cross open ground, pygmy rabbits are are unable to maintain genetic diversity and the number and success of offspring is largely limited by inbreeding.  Fences and posts provide height for predator birds to prey on pygmy rabbits – height that otherwise does not exist in the vast Sagebrush Sea, and livestock crush pygmy rabbit burrows.

Although efforts to preserve the Columbia Basin gene have been supplemented with Idaho pygmy rabbits, the Idaho pygmy rabbit is also imperiled across nearly all of its range.  Efforts are underway to gain protection for Idaho pygmy rabbits, Western Watersheds Project recently won a lawsuit against the Bush Interior Department forcing a new 90-day Finding which prompted a Status Review, currently underway.

Unfortunately, things aren’t looking good for pygmy rabbits in the immediate future;  Mega wind-farms and energy transmission lines planned for development across public landscapes are increasingly threatening some of the last, best pygmy rabbit habitats in the West.


  1. John d. Avatar
    John d.

    Sad news to hear, yet another extinction that could have been avoided. In later years when asked what went wrong, it’ll be lumped under urban sprawl or predators.

    The livestock industry definitely has a lot of blood on its hands.

  2. outsider Avatar

    I would think that fire played a major role here, one can only imagin how many of these rabbits are burned up every year when old decidant sage brush stands go up in smoke.

  3. Salle Avatar

    I maintain that it’s a lot of chaining and grazing.

    When a specie of rabbit becomes extinct, does anyone else find that alarming ? Rabbits are rather prolific, so if this has happened to a specie like that, there is absolutely something wrong with the activities that caused it, whatever they may be. Kind of like Idaho’s salmon only this time it’s mammals though it’s still caused by humans.

  4. jdubya Avatar

    This is too bad. But with this kind of public opinion on GW and the environment in general, perhaps not surprising:

  5. kt Avatar

    What happened is that the last population was at Sagebrush Flat in central Washington, on Washington State lands. Due to the bullying of the Cattlemen, the Sagebrush Flat site was grazed, and industrialized for livestock with the usual water tanks and habitat fragmentation. So native grases were grazed and weakened, weeds and cheatgrass spread, sagebrush was structurally altered and broken by lumbering cows so it provided less cover. Grazing was only removed the last 3 or so years – but by that time it was too late – the population was too low to be viable.

    Unfortunately, the current Washington Governor, Chris Gregoire, is enamored of cattlemen – and is seeking to allow grazing to be imposed o other long-ungrazed lands. She apparently has not heard that President Obama has called for Science to rise again …

    I am also quite concerned about rabbits being taken from Idaho to “re-introduce” in Washington. Why should Washington state, which is plunging backwards into the dark ages by trying to graze sagebrush areas like Whiskey Dick that have been ungrazed for a quarter century, take exceedingly scarce Idaho pygmy rabbits to place in sagebrush somewhere – given that the Game Department is ignoring the science of grazing effects on sagebrush across the region? There is no guarantee that the Game Department won’t dump cows on top of the rabbits there in the future.

    Plus in Idaho the U of I researchers who have pretty much a lock on pygmy doings here go around claiming there are all kinds of rabbits – in reality that is simply not the case. It seems to be a way to suck in a constant stream of grant dollars. The pygmy rabbit has disappeared from vast areas in Idaho – including those that still have sagebrush. The Idaho researchers obsess over small areas where some rabbits remain – hiding the fact that these are increasingly isolated and vulnerable populations. I can only hope that any federal funding during the Obama years breaks the U of I lock on funding through the Office of Species Conservation (er – that is Office of Species Extinction), and the lid is blown off this little U of I Club of all is well, lots of rabbits to export … etc.

  6. Ken Cole Avatar

    You know that “North American wildlife management model”, it doesn’t seem to work very well for non-game species. It’s as if the state agencies could care less unless they can sell a tag to hunt and kill it.

  7. kt Avatar

    Yes, and in Idaho what has happened is really appalling. Federal dollars get funneled through the Office of Species Extinction that was established by ESA-hating Dirk Kempthorne when he was Governor to waylay money that was supposed to go for valid and needed research, surveys, projects and analyses to protect rare animals and plants . In reality, this is a whole Department that the state of Idaho doesn’t need. It was set up to further weaken Fish and Game, back in the days before Fish and Game was a complete lackey of the livestock industry (unlike the current sorry state in most instances). State taxpayers have no reason to keep OSC and several well paid bureaucrats around – instead give the federal $$$ species $$$ directly to on-the-ground projects but require a federal review of project suitability, maybe involve the Tribes for oversight, too.

    ll you have to do is look at Mr. Fisher’s remarks at meetings on sage grouse last year in Sun Valley – he is a virulent foe of the ESA – as will be anyone under Otter. The OSC does not operate on the basis of science – just acts to hide things they don’t like, reward their buddies (researchers and projects that will never say a discouraging word about livestock and others) The Feds. need to yank the $$$ to OSC and find another way to do good things for species. This office did not exist before Kempthorne wasted tax dollrs establishing it. It needs to go away.

  8. Mike Post Avatar
    Mike Post

    I know this is going to get a lot of you very excited, but extinction, in and of itself, is an integral part of evolution. That said, intentional or incidental extinction of a species by human activity should be prevented, mitigated, or reversed whenever possible, but “extinction” is not a bad word, it is the process that allowed the pygmy rabbit to arise and spread in its historic habitat in the first place. Those who think that we should try and freeze evolution in place are both wrong and destined for disappointment. It is inevitable that in our time we will witness the extinction of some species who cannot adapt to changing conditions just as some species are being observed to rise to supremacy in their places. The condor and the turkey vulture are classic examples. The condor is functionally extinct because it cannot survive without it’s multimillion dollar program of captive breeding, nest cleaning, feeding stations and veterinary care. The niche the condor once thrived in has been very ably filled by the turkey vulture who seems to have avoided all the fatal behavioral deficiencies of the condor while performing the condor’s clean-up job even more efficiently. We need to honestly evaluate at what point the apparent pending extinction of a species is primarily a natural evolutionary process and not primarily the result of intentional or incidental planned human activity.
    I do not claim to know the answer for this rabbit, but it should be part of the scientific process to find out.

  9. jdubya Avatar

    Mike Post,

    Just curious. Name me a species that has gone extinct in the past 100 years that was not due to man’s interference. Hell, lets go for the past 1000 years. I am trying to come up with one but my tired weak memory can’t.

  10. Peter Bray Avatar

    utah lake sculpin

  11. kt Avatar

    Brian just posted Steve Herman’s reaction to this. Steve was on the ground, in Washington state, as this whole debacle unfolded in the wild through the 1990s. The already well-known science of the devastating effects of livestock grazing on sagebrush steppe ecosystems was blindly ignored, as “appeasement” of the cattle industry “we can all get along and go along in our happy collaborative CRM group” drove

    It shows what happens when state agencies do the bidding of the Cattlemen’s Association.

  12. kt Avatar

    Whoops. I meant to complete the sentence to say “drove the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit into extinction”.

  13. jdubya Avatar

    Peter….try again?? Wikipedia is always right, isn’t it?

    “”The Utah Lake sculpin, Cottus echinatus, was a species of freshwater sculpin endemic to Utah Lake, located in the north-central part of the U.S. state of Utah. The last collected specimen was taken in 1928, and the species is believed to have disappeared during the 1930s, when a severe drought led to a rapid fall in water levels in the lake. A cold winter led to the lake freezing, resulting in the overcrowding of the remaining fish. This, along with decreased water quality from agricultural practices, has been identified as the likely cause of extinction.”””

  14. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears


    Here is a list of extinct species considered to have gone in modern times, you might have to do so research to figure out if any of them went extinct because of or despite humans intervention..

    Of course it is a wiki article and WE all know they are ALWAYS 100% right!

  15. kt Avatar

    Save bears, Thank you for the link, you have to click on through to get the lists.

    I have excerpted some that might interest folks here:


    * Sardinian Pika (1774, Sardinia) [16]

    NOTE: The pygmy rabbit is a lagomorph, related to the pika. Someone needs to add the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit to this Wiki list. The Washingtn Cattlemn must be proud of their handiwork. I have been thinking for the last few years, while watching cattlemen grind habitats to pieces, that is part of the plan. Get rid of the “nuisance” creatures ta stand in their way. That sure is the Butch Otter Fish and Game Department approach to wolves. Annihilate packs in grazed areas – I think there are between 20 and 30 they had targeted on mapping last year – Salmon, Lemhi, Copper Basin across the Boise Front up to Riggins.

    No other lagomorphs show up here, but I think there may be IUCN or other lists that are complete.


    * Falkland Island Wolf (1876, Falkland Islands)
    * Sea Mink (1894, Northeastern North America)
    * Caribbean Monk Seal (1952, Jamaica)
    * Japanese Sea Lion (1950s, Japan)
    * Javan Tiger (1950s, Java)
    * Bali Tiger (1950s, Bali)
    * Barbary Lion (possibly extinct in the wild 1890, Algeria)
    * Japanese Wolf (1930s, Japan)
    * Mexican grizzly bear (1960s, Mexico)
    * Caspian Tiger (1950s, Tajikistan)
    * Cave Lion (2000 years ago, Alpine)
    * saber-Toothed Cat (10,000 years ago, Boreal Forest)

  16. Mike Post Avatar
    Mike Post

    I find it interesting that some of you seem to think that human populations are not part of the ecosystem and the evolutionary process, that anything related to human impacts on the planet is somehow unnatural. Admittedly, we are probably the first animal species capable of a holistic, ethical and futuristic approach to the health of the planet but that does not take away from the fact that we are another competing animal in the evolutionary process. Our very existence, however benign and well intentioned, threatens other species and cannot help but do so…

  17. jdubya Avatar

    I dunno Mike. I, for one, am not happy being a single species that will be responsible for the extinct of a myriad of species. Perhaps you should do some reading on the extinction potential in the next 50 years due to global warming and then decide if you think human populations are part of the ecosystem. I think those are old terms and old concepts that no longer apply to the impact that man has on his surroundings and evolutionary biologists/anthropologists need to come up with some better terms and concepts.

    And I completely disagree with your contention that our existence cannot help but drive species to extinction. We choose that road because it is easy and cheap, not because we are destined to do so. Christians, of course, believe that “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” and that seemingly gives them carte blanche to do what they want, aka James Watt from Interior. Not my cup of tea.

  18. kt Avatar

    So Mike Post – Are you saying we have some kind of “divine right” to destroy whatever species we want – just ‘cuz we have learned how to domesticate cows and make bulldozers and guns?

  19. Salle Avatar

    Isn’t that just a component of “manifest destiny”? Frankly, I feel that is where we really went careening off the cliff as a specie that is “part of” the ecosystems and became an opponent instead. The dawn of the industrial age is when we left the path but we seem to have been mashing the gas pedal ever since, anything in our way be damned ~ even as we “catch air” on our way into the abyss.

  20. kt Avatar

    Salle – Yes, and manifest destiny is sure still with us – including right now playing out on the no-holds-barred Industrial Green Energy Frontier …

    Ralph – Did you teach a course about manifest destiny, and what it did to the continent?

  21. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    I hardly think Mike Post thinks we have a divine right to destroy wherever species we want.

    He raises a very tough question — what the place of humans in regard to nature or ecosystems.

    Clearly natural ecosystems have been great modified by humans and many artificial ones have been created, such as cropland. These artificial ecosystems can only be sustained by a continual input of labor and energy.

    Thank of what happens to a farm in just a year after abandonment — ecological succession sets in immediately.

  22. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    I propose we abandon the word “unnatural.” It seems to me that everything is natural (unless there are also things that are supernatural).

    The opposite of natural should be “artificial,” not “unnatural.”

    If we create some new pesticide, a robot, a cure for a disease, build a city, destroy a city; it is natural, although done by the artifice of humankind.

  23. JB Avatar


    You beat me to the punch. I often challenge students to define nature without any reference to humans/people/mankind. This seems to cause great consternation. Our western conceptualization of nature can be (almost literally) translated as “without man”; thus, something in its “natural” state is unaltered by humans. If humans (and their works) are considered a part of nature, then nature includes everything. If nature includes everything the term becomes useless, as it can’t be used to differentiate natural from unnatural objects or entities (i.e. if everything is natural then nothing is unnatural).

  24. kt Avatar

    Ralph and JB,

    So anything goes, all is “natural” that humans do or build? I don’t buy it.

  25. Ken Cole Avatar

    Human nature is destructive.

  26. JB Avatar


    Just the opposite. In our culture, the less a thing is influenced by humans the more “natural” it is.


  27. Jerry Gregson Avatar
    Jerry Gregson

    It’s too easy to get emotional about this and blame the whole of the problem on grazing and government agency incompetence. Yes, grazing does impact the ecosystem in many ways, but these bunnies just might have gone out of the picture with or without the cows.

    Removing cows can have sometimes have undesireable consequences. You cut out the grazing and then fine fuels start to accumulate. Those fine fuels are the native grasses and forbs that the rabbits probably need in addition to sagebrush. The fine fuels include cheatgrass and other invasive species. Then the next idiot that comes along accidentally sets it all ablaze (or mother nature’s lightning does it for you) and wipes out an entire landscape level stand of sagebrush – along with all the rabbits! Pygmy rabbits are totally dependent on sagebrush. Without it, they’re gone. Look at all the burned up sagebrush habitat all across southern Idaho – burned up due to fine fuel accumulation and wildfire (both human and lightning caused). Pygmy rabbits do not exist in those burned areas anymore.

    But, why do we have so many ‘apparently’ viable pygmy rabbit populations in the intermountain valleys between Dillon, Montana and Sun Valley, Idaho? (Of which I am mostly familiar.) All of that sagebrush habitat is grazed by cows, yet pygmy’s are still present in scattered populations (maybe metapopulations?) throughout this area, even on sagebrush sites that could be thought of as overgrazed. The pygmy’s diet in this area consists not only of sagebrush but of short statured, grazing resistant grasses such as Poa segunda, and also forbs that grow low to the ground and are very grazing resistant. The point is that just removing the cows won’t necessarily solve the problem. Man’s impact on the system is pervasive and may be progressive and (sadley) irreversible in some cases. Until we figure it all out, I think I’d rather have some cows out there (responsibly managed of course) than risk losing landscape-sized patches of sagebrush to idiot-caused wildfire. There is no doubt in my mind that stands of sagebrush grazed by cows will support pygmy rabbits, at least for some period of time into the future. Burned up sagebrush stands will not.

    Note: I have not personally reviewed any scientific data on pygmy rabbit diet composition. It is simply my personal and professional opinion that grasses and forbs are probably an important dietary component.

  28. kt Avatar

    Here is a link to the Stimulus Bill.

    Note that it contains:

    Title II

    For an additional amount for ‘‘Buildings and Facili-
    ties’’, $209,000,000, for work on deferred maintenance at
    Agricultural Research Service facilities: Provided, That
    priority in the use of such funds shall be given to critical
    deferred maintenance, to projects that can be completed,
    and to activities that can commence promptly following
    enactment of this Act.

    Those very big $$$ in the Stimulus Bill is likely what is prompting things like this “charette”:

    Note they have pygmy rabbit cages and are taking about doing something with grizzly bears, too. I don’t think Washington state should get any more rabbits to play around with until they change the Governor’s Office and the Game Department stop imposing cattle grazing on the little bit of sagebrush country that is left – since it was the madness of continued cattle grazing at Sagebrush Flat that drove the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits to extinction in the first place.

  29. Thom Schwabauer Avatar
    Thom Schwabauer

    Im not sure if what we have is Columbia Basin Pygmy rabbit or not…but we live in Moses Lake and have the tiniest of bunnies here on our property.

  30. kt Avatar

    Thom Schwauber –

    Here is a link to a PDF that is kind of slow to download – it compares cottontails, jackrabbits and pygmy rabbits.

    Do you see these small rabbits in winter, right now? Do they have white “cotton” tails, or not?

    Is there snow there? If so, look for piles of very small pellets in the snow near burrows and under sage. Take photos of pellet piles with a ruler or some other object for scale, if you can’t get a photo of the rabbit. Pygmies travel outward from burrows along the same “beaten” path in snow. There will be trails radiating out from burrows in the snow.

    Other rabbits will go down pygmy burrows, so tracks of a rabbit going down a burrow could be a cottontail.

    Is there a large area of dense and structurally complex sagebrush? Moses Lake certainly USED TO BE pygmy habitat – deep soil Basin big sagebrush country.

    Definitely check it out – it would be more than extraordinary if you did.

  31. kt Avatar

    Thom Schwabauer,

    Here is another pygmy rabbit link – no photo but describes some characteristics, including pellet size.

  32. kt Avatar

    This is an example of how Washington state is continuing to destroy its remaining shrubsteppe – a CRM hold hands with the ranchers group assembled in large part by a huge industrial wind farm. The CRM is just like the Washington state process that drove the pygmies into extinction.

    Whiskey Dick is critical connecting habitat between Washington’s two dwinding sage grouse populations. It appears Governor Gregoire, the wind farm, and ONE – count them – ONE cattleman involved here, are tyr9ing to make sure those pesky grouse go extimct in Washington state – just like the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit did – unless the fellow who Posted last night can pull some out of his hat – or back forty. Like the rediscovery of Carex aboriginum in ID in the past decade.

    I believe the ISOLATED Washington state grouse population is down to something like 700 birds – and decreasing at a rate of 5% a year … The genetic diversity is also going downhill in Washington grouse. That must be why the Game Department keeps trying to take birds from Hart Mountain. Again, just like with pygmy rabbit, Washington’s abominable policies in imposing grazing disturbance and weeds on long-ungrazed WDFW land make the Department dumping out “transplants” a futile exercise.

  33. kt Avatar

    Here is a Scientific American Blog Post about the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit:

    Ivan Oransky, the author, refers to an extinction watch column that is now moving to Scientific American.

    “It’s with that not-so-great news for an endangered species that I introduce’s newest blogger, John Platt. Platt wrote the Extinction Blog for Plenty magazine, … Platt will now be the main author of our “60-Second Extinction Countdown” blog. Here’s his first entry, on prairie dog”s.

    The remaining sage grouse in Washington state are going to blink out, too, if Governor Gregoire continues her love affair with the Cattlemen, and keeps handing Game Department land over to the cattlemen to impose grazing on critical connecting habitats like Whiskey Dick and the Coordinated Resource Mgmt Plan group.

    As Steve Herman wrote here, it was a “CRM” process in the 1990s (everybody and their uncle get together, deny ecological science, and hold hands with a cowboy process) that sped the Columbia Basin rabbits to extinction.

  34. Jim Avatar

    The last holdout for the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit should of been protected. No grazing should of taken place in this area.

  35. breanna Avatar

    hi i am breanna and i go to downey high and i need to knoe more about Pygmy Rabbits for my endangered species project can u please email me ?

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Brian Ertz