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Conservation collaborations emerge (again) from fire

Posted by: Katie Remine, Education

In December of 2016, a fire damaged Woodland Park Zoo’s Day and Night exhibits. Staff from across the zoo came together with local firefighters to respond to the emergency and protect the animals in our care. With this tragedy in recent memory, we were very saddened to learn about a fire that impacted the conservation community in Eastern Washington. In late June, a brush fire caused great damage to the Pygmy Rabbit Recovery Project. But, like our experience at the zoo, a wide variety of partners and stakeholders came together in response to the emergency. This August, our Advanced Inquiry Program graduate students were able to go out, get dirty and help our friends at the Pygmy Rabbit Recovery Project.

Pygmy rabbit in a breeding enclosure in central Washington’s shrub steppe. Photo by Katie Remine/Woodland Park Zoo.

Weighing less than a pound for an average adult, pygmy rabbits are the smallest known rabbit species in the world and are the only rabbits in the United States that dig their own burrows.  Pygmy rabbits are found throughout the Great Basin, which includes parts of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Pygmy rabbits rely on habitat with deep soils and plentiful sagebrush, which makes up 99% of their winter diet. During spring and summer, sagebrush remains a staple, but is supplemented with grasses and other non-woody plants. The distinct Washington population, the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, reached drastically low levels by the late 1990s, but thanks to efforts by local zoos, universities, The Nature Conservancy and agencies including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), populations in Washington are being re-established. Under the care of WDFW staff, pygmy rabbits are currently breeding in several large, open-air enclosures (which provide protection from predators) in shrub steppe habitat in central Washington and individuals are released into the wild each year.

In late June 2017, one of these enclosures and the surrounding habitat was impacted by a fire started by a lightning strike. Bureau of Land Management firefighters, WDFW staff and their partners all jumped in and took quick action and saved approximately one-third of the rabbits in the enclosure and transferred the survivors to the other enclosures. As staff and project partners evaluate next steps for rebuilding the population of pygmy rabbits so they can release more into the wild in future years, they are also working to take stock of the remaining population.

A view to the north across the location of the pygmy rabbit enclosure that was burned by the Sutherland Fire in June 2017. Photo by Katie Remine/Woodland Park Zoo.

As part of Woodland Park Zoo’s Advanced Inquiry Program, our graduate students can take a Northwest Wildlife Conservation (NWC) course. Each year this course focuses on an ecoregion in Washington state and explores case studies of species and habitat conservation in that ecoregion. This summer our topic was the Columbia Plateau ecoregion and pygmy rabbit recovery was one of our case studies. During our course field week, our NWC class joined the Pygmy Rabbit Recovery team to help them monitor the existing population in one of the enclosures. We were all touched by the team’s firsthand accounts of the fire and their response actions. One of the first rabbits we helped to check on was a survivor from the burned enclosure—project staff could tell from the rabbit’s singed whiskers that he had been awfully close to the flames. But he was an energetic rabbit, a trait that probably helped him survive!

Stacey Nerkowski (PhD candidate at University of Idaho) and Brian Zinke (WDFW) take data on a pygmy rabbit that survived the June fire, while WPZ Advanced Inquiry Program students look on. Photo by Katie Remine/Woodland Park Zoo.

During our course week, participants were inspired by all of our guest speakers, including representatives from Chelan-Douglas Land Trust, Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship, The Nature Conservancy, a cattle rancher engaged in sustainable grazing practices, WDFW pygmy rabbit and WDFW raptor conservation staff, University of Idaho students and a local teacher. We quickly realized that conservation in a working landscape takes a lot of collaboration, communication and mutual respect. The example of the response to the fire only strengthened that understanding. Like the “one zoo” values that our zoo staff demonstrated during our fire emergency, we know it was this “one community” feeling that helped save those pygmy rabbits. Our hope for the future of the Columbia Plateau ecoregion, its biodiversity and local livelihoods was definitely rekindled by our experiences!

WPZ course participants assist Jon Gallie (WDFW Wildlife Biologist, right) with netting pygmy rabbits within the breeding enclosure in order to monitor the population. Photo by Alicia Highland.

Want to learn more about the Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) and our course offerings? Join us for an AIP Information Session this fall/winter: Wednesday, November 15, 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. at WPZ; Tuesday, November 28 via webinar or Thursday, January 18, 2018, 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. at WPZ. RSVP by emailing