Good News from Pygmy Rabbit Relocation Project

pygmy rabbitPenny Becker, a research scientist overseeing the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit recovery effort for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is pleased with the 40 percent survival rate of the rabbits released through a breeding program that brought in rabbits from surrounding states, according to an article in the Seattle Times.

That 40 percent survival rate compares to a survival rate of 10 percent for wildlife pygmy rabbits in Oregon, and 22 percent for wild pygmy rabbits in Idaho, the article says. The population was listed as federally endangered in 2003.

Read the entire story in the Seattle Times, here.

Photo: pygmy rabbit, perhaps in Idaho. Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

NY State Seeks Rabbit Heads

NE cottontail 2

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is seeking cottontail rabbit heads from hunters east of the Hudson River. The eastern cottontail is almost identical in appearance to the imperiled New England cottontail. The only sure way to tell the two rabbit species apart is by sampling DNA or looking at the shape of the skull. The collected heads will allow both.

To gather more information about the distribution of the New England cottontail in the state, as well as possibly turning up the once widespread Appalachian cottontail (S. obscurus), the NYS DEC is turning to rabbit hunters in Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, Columbia or Rensselaer County, or in the Sterling Forest State Park in Orange County to contribute the heads from their prey.

More information is available on the NYS DEC New England cottontail survey web page, here.

You can keep an eye out for the extremely short notice in the DEC’s Field Notes newsletter, here. It is in the Nov. 30 edition, which wasn’t posted yet when this went on-line.

Photo: A New England cottontail, source unknown.

New England Bunny Hop

New England cottontail in MaineLast autumn, nine New England cottontails bred in captivity at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island were released inside a predator-proof fence enclosing one acre of the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, also in Rhode Island.

You can read all about the New England cottontail captive breeding program in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums blog Find the article here.

In Massachusetts, MassWildlife has been collecting roadkilled cottontails and cottontail skulls since 2010 to figure out how many and where the two species of cottontails are in the state. Out of the 500 specimens received, about 10 percent have been New England cottontails and several new populations have been uncovered.

MassWildlife would like to have more samples from the western part of the state, and hopes to reach sportsmen, highway department workers, animal control officers, and other interested citizens with their plea.

More info about the program is available in the April 2012 edition of MassWildlife News, which was not on line at press time. But do check for it here.(Info from the program from last year is available here.)

New England cottontails look an awful lot like Eastern cottontails. Sometimes even the experts need a DNA test to tell them apart for sure. But New England cottontails are the only one of the pair native to New England, although the Eastern cottontail is taking over its territory.

New England cottontail numbers have plummeted, earning the species an Endangered Species Act listing as “warranted but precluded.”

Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit’s Last Stand

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is making what may be a final attempt to restore the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit to its native habitat. A 2007 attempt to reintroduce zoo-bred rabbits into the wild ended in most of the naive rabbits being eaten by predators.

This time the rabbits will be released into a fenced enclosure, with gradual exposure to predators through smaller enclosures with tunnels to the outside. The rabbits are not pure-bred Columbia Basin pygmies, but have been bred with pygmy rabbits from Idaho and Oregon, which are not endangered. In fact, most other pygmy rabbits in the West thrive.

Read more in this article in the Idaho Statesman. An InsideScience report on the restoration is available via US News and World Report. Or read the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife press release. Read the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s species profile (well technically, a “distinct population segment” profile) here.

Photo: A pygmy rabbit of unknown distinct population segment, likely from Idaho, courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Photo Credit: R. Dixon (IDFG) and H. Ulmschneider (BLM)

Isolated populations further endanger NE cottontail

Photo: US Fish & Wildlife

Genetic analysis of the remaining New England cottontail populations show that five population clusters of rabbits are not mingling, which makes the survival of some of the populations even less likely than was already thought.

The University of New Hampshire based team of researchers found that New England cottontail rabbits in southern Maine, and central and southeastern New Hampshire formed one population cluster; Cape Cod, Massachusetts was home to another cluster; parts of eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island were home to a third cluster; and western Connecticut, southeastern New York and southwestern Massachusetts had a fourth cluster. One isolated population in eastern Connecticut was home to the fifth cluster, which was genetically isolated, even from the two other population clusters nearby.

The researchers say that immediate conservation efforts should focus on shoring up New England cottontail populations in Maine, New Hampshire, and on Cape Cod. Eventually, they say, the connectivity between the populations needs to be restored.

The New England cottontail is not a federally endangered species. It was found “warranted by precluded,” by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Translated into English, that means they found that it probably deserves protection, but they just don’t have the resources to do it.

Read the article in the journal Conservation Genetics, here.

For more on the New England cottontail, and why it looks just like an eastern cottontail, but isn’t one, read more in the Outside Story nature column.