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Pygmy rabbits returned to central Wash. state

EPHRATA, Wash. — The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is finally
back in its old stomping grounds, munching olive-drab sagebrush and
hopefully doing what rabbits do best.

Twenty of the creatures — each not much bigger than a man's hand
— were set free Tuesday in a remote wildlife reserve, an attempt to
jump-start their population in central Washington state.

The rabbits were born and raised at Washington State University
and at the Portland Zoo in Oregon. They are descendants of the last
known wild rabbits, caught in 2002.

The captive breeding program that is helping the rabbits is
similar to the effort that brought back the California condor, said
Ren Lohoefener, Pacific regional director of the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service.

``Any time you can bring something back from zero and
re-establish it, it's cause to celebrate,'' he said. ``This may be
harder to do than with condors, because a lot more things eat
bunnies than condors.''

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is the country's smallest native
rabbit and the only one in the United States to dig its own
burrows. The rabbit was listed for protection under the federal
Endangered Species Act in 2003.

The reasons the Columbia Basin rabbits declined are not
precisely known, although scientists suspect inbreeding among such
a small population was a major factor. Range fires, farming,
disease and predators also are thought to have taken their toll.

Pygmy rabbits are still found in the West's Great Basin, but the
isolated Columbia Basin group is considered to be an evolutionary
distinct population, said Rod Sayler, a Washington State University
associate professor of natural resource sciences who leads the
captive breeding project.

Only three purebred descendants of the original wild rabbits
remain at the captive breeding sites. The Columbia Basin rabbits
were mated with more genetically diverse Idaho pygmy rabbits and
their offspring carry at least 75 percent of the Columbia pygmy
bloodlines. The crossbred rabbits became better breeders and more
of their young survived.

``That population had been isolated for thousands of years,''
Sayler said. ``We added just enough to help them along and
reproduction picked back up.''

The rabbits were released in the Sagebrush Flats area about 18
miles northwest of Ephrata, part of a five-county range that was
the rabbits' original habitat.

The dozen males and eight females were placed in artificial
burrows made of 20-foot-long perforated plastic irrigation pipes
until they get used to the place and dig their own. Each wore a
tiny radio transmitter the size of a watch battery to help
scientists track its movements.