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Hoping For Hopping: How A Tiny Rabbit United Friends And Conservation In Central Washington

Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy
Pygmy rabbits, the smallest rabbit in North America, are endangered in Washington. After a devastating fire season in 2020, biologists have found new burrows that give them hope for the species.

Peter Lancaster has always had a love for rabbits. But when he first saw a pygmy rabbit – perhaps what would become the most influential animal throughout his life – he didn’t know what it was.

One spring break as a kid, Lancaster went camping with a few friends a little ways from his home in East Wenatchee. 

Out in the sage, they saw this little creature.

“We looked at it, and we all said … Pika?” Lancaster recalls.

But 12-year-old Lancaster decided they hadn’t quite identified the cute animal with rounded ears. It hopped off into a burrow.

Decades later, Lancaster saw more pygmy rabbits in Dillion, Mont. And he knew the creature outside his hometown in central Washington had been a baby, no bigger than a baseball. (They’re the smallest rabbit species in North America.)

That began years of work to try and save the species, now endangered in Washington.

“They have evolved into being the perfect denizen of the sagebrush steppe,” Lancaster says. “If this animal really doesn't need anything except a place to live – and it's about to go extinct – something is wrong. Something has happened that will probably affect us.”

Genetically distinct

The rabbits in Washington’s Columbia Basin are genetically distinct. In 2001, only 16 pygmy rabbits were known to exist in the state. Large recovery efforts have taken place in the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area, near Ephrata, and Beezley Hills, near Quincy.

On a camping trip near Beezley Hills in 1998, Lancaster spied a previously unknown pygmy rabbit colony.

He’d recently left his job at Microsoft and began volunteering for pygmy rabbit surveys, where he began to understand their habitat needs.

Peter Lancaster has been working to preserve pygmy rabbit habitat in Washington for years, which he traces back to first seeing one on a camping trip as as kid near East Wenatchee.

“I just kind of ransacked all the places I'd gone to in my youth and thought maybe there were rabbits there,” he says.

For about a year, he’d scour maps for ideal habitat and go in search. His efforts paid off.

“I was ecstatic. It’s kind of hard to explain because I had been searching for such a long time. Then, when I saw this burrow with all this bed of pellets, I was on cloud nine,” Lancaster says.

He shot a quick video, and that’s about when he heard a road grader in the distance. The land was going to be parceled and sold.

Wrangling help

Lancaster tried to wrangle help from conservation organizations and the state, but the land sale was moving too quickly. So he bought it himself.

He wasn’t really interested in owning the land. He just wanted to protect the rabbits.

“That was almost 25 years ago. It became a mainstay for breeding operations in the Beezley Hills area,” Lancaster says.

As the program gained success, another parcel went up for sale.

He called his best friend, Paul Schuster, who also worked at Microsoft and was a conservationist at heart. The two had enjoyed whitewater kayaking adventures and trips around the world together. Now, it seemed, they’d be co-landowners.

The new land was an old Conservation Reserve Program field, former wheat that hadn’t been harvested since the mid-1980s. As it turned out, the rabbits really liked the habitat.

Schuster, who died unexpectedly last year after an accident, always knew he wanted to donate the land to The Nature Conservancy, which helps with the breeding program at Beezley Hills.

Lancaster knew he wanted to honor his friend.

“(Schuster) bought the property because I asked him. He had no interest, except for conservation,” Lancaster says. “But it's just because I asked him as a friend to do it, that he did it. It was completely selfless.”

Critical land after fires

Last month, Lancaster and the estate of Paul Schuster donated 282 acres to The Nature Conservancy. The land was surrounded by the conservancy’s property, which helped the organization “complete a critical piece of the puzzle,” says Corinna Hanson, Moses Coulee Land Manager with TNC.

“It lies right in one of the most important areas for the recovery of the species,” Hanson says.

The land is becoming even more critical as fires have torched much of the pygmy rabbit habitat in recent years. Other threats include habitat fragmentation and an emerging rabbit hemorrhagic disease – “like rabbit ebola,” according to biologist Jon Gallie. It’s been found in wild jackrabbits as recently as March near Boise. Biologists are vaccinating captive pygmy rabbits, which will delay releases this year.

Credit Courtesy of Peter Lancaster
Peter Lancaster, left, and Paul Schuster traveled the world together and co-owned land to conserve for pygmy rabbits. Here, they're on a safari in Tanzania.

In 2017, the Sutherland Canyon Fire burned through the first tract of land Lancaster had purchased. It destroyed a nine-acre captive breeding pen and killed many rabbits, most likely including one special rabbit Lancaster named Jade.

“He or she typified many pygmies I’ve seen in the field. They have an aura of serenity. Of course, that is anthropomorphizing, but I’ll willingly admit to having a bias as far as pygmy rabbits go,” Lancaster says.

The fall 2020 Pearl Hill Fire burned through more pygmy rabbit habitat. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Jon Gallie says the fire absolutely devastated an area near Jameson Lake they’d hoped would become “the true shining star.”

Biologist Jon Gallie says they’d been able to save some rabbits that had survived inside their burrows during the 2017 fire. A day after the Pearl Hill fire burned through the prime habitat, they rushed with supplies, hoping to rescue as many animals as possible.

“Right away, it was a very different feeling. There was no rapid movement when we got in there. There wasn't anything left. It was all vaporized ash,” Gallie recalls. “In fact, most of the burrows were completely filled with this sand and ash from the firestorm.”

Every rabbit had been lost. That basically amounted to half the pygmy rabbits biologists could account for in Washington. Almost worse, the entire habitat was burned to a crisp. 

Pygmy rabbits need mature sagebrush to survive. Gallie says if the bushes aren’t at least three feet tall – the sagebrush should be difficult for humans to walk in – don’t count on seeing a tiny rabbit. He says it will be at least 15 years before they can use that habitat again.

“We had to tear these pages out of the recovery plan, like, we're done,” Gallie says. “We have to wait 15 years before we can come back in here and recalibrate. ... It's really hard to not let your mind wander (and think): Is this even possible? Are we going to do all this work and in three more years have another fire?”

Lancaster says fire has wiped out all the locations he’d planned to continue searching for unknown pygmy rabbit colonies. For example, the 2019 fire on Rattlesnake Mountain near Hanford.

“That was an area that I was about to get to, to look for pygmy rabbits, and it burned. So I was like, ‘Well, that's not an option anymore.’ I had a whole bunch of areas sort of singled out where I wanted to look, but they all burned,” he says.

Still hoping for hopping

Lancaster holds out hope to see pygmy rabbits hopping again. Recently, biologists discovered a colony outside Sagebrush Flat. A bunch of rabbits had hopped away from the colony where they were born and created an extensive new living space. The dispersal was an unexpected sign of hope for biologists, who’d been searching over miles for any sign of pygmy rabbits. 

“It kind of brought us back from the brink of extinction,” Gallie says.

They’d had to pivot after the 2020 fires and almost couldn’t believe their luck when they searched some private land (with permission of the landowner). They were three miles from the closest known active burrow and up to five mile from any release site.

Credit Peter Lancaster
Peter Lancaster and the estate of Paul Schuster donated 282 acres of prime pygmy rabbit habitat to The Nature Conservancy. Lancaster called this rabbit Jade.

The more they looked, the more they found. Rabbits carrying on as rabbits do.

In all, they’d found more than 60 active burrows.

“It's really turned our understanding of habitat connectivity and landscape ecology and recalibrated what we're thinking these animals are going to be capable of because they didn't just disperse and colonize the next available habitat,” Gallie says.

In the Beezley Hills area, where Lancaster is donating land, Gallie says the rabbit populations passed a critical point this winter. There now seems to be enough pygmy rabbits in the wild that the population is starting to sustain itself.

“Nature does it better than we are ever going to,” Gallie says. “I wouldn't say we're home free and established, but it has a very different feel this year.”

As a fifth-generation Washingtonian, Lancaster hopes future generations will see the joy in these tiny rabbits that he’s experienced. He calls them a “heritage of Washington state.” 

Sometimes Lancaster imagines his great-great grandfather hauling freight from Walla Walla north toward Spokane.

“I just wondered what he saw before all of that property was put under plow,” Lancaster says. “I just wanted some future person to have the opportunity to see what I saw. And the only way to do that is through preservation.”

Courtney Flatt covers environmental and natural resources issues for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network. On Twitter: @courtneyflatt