Pygmy rabbits will continue to be classified as an endangered species in Washington, based on a report to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission that they face ongoing risks to their long-term survival in central Washington’s sagebrush habitat.
The commission, a citizen panel appointed by the governor to set policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), maintained the pygmy rabbit’s current status under state law when it met June 14-16 in Olympia. The commission will decide the classification of two other species – sea otters and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse – later this summer.
Hannah Anderson, WDFW wildlife recovery specialist, said the state’s wild pygmy rabbit population – estimated at 250 animals – primarily inhabits two “recovery emphasis areas” at Sagebrush Flats and Beezley Hills in Douglas County. Their numbers are well short of WDFW’s goal of a five-year average population of at least 1,400 rabbits in six separate populations for “downlisting” to threatened status.
Anderson said the rabbits, which are also classified as endangered under federal law, face several threats to their survival, including the loss and fragmentation of their sagebrush habitat, wildfires, and the relatively small size of the population.
The department’s main recovery strategy is to reintroduce the animals in areas where they lived before their numbers were depleted. She said WDFW began breeding the rabbits in captivity in 2002 and in semi-wild breeding enclosures about 10 years later. Since 2011, WDFW has released nearly 2,000 rabbits into the wild.
In other action at its June meeting, the commission:
- Appointed Kelly Susewind of Olympia as the department’s new director. Susewind will assume his duties on Aug. 1. More detail is available in a news release online at https://wdfw.wa.gov/news/jun1618a/.
- Received a briefing from staff and heard public comment before rejecting a proposal to open a commercial gillnet fishery for summer chinook salmon in the lower Columbia River.
- Approved several changes in WDFW’s accommodations for hunters, anglers, and others with disabilities under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Effective Aug. 1, new rules will take that address a variety of accommodations, ranging from shooting from a vehicle to authorizing assistance for trappers. For more information, see https://wdfw.wa.gov/accessibility/.
- Approved the department’s purchase of 2 acres of wetlands along the Chinook River in Pacific County as part of an effort to improve habitat for salmon through increased tidal flows into the WDFW Chinook Wildlife Area.
- Directed WDFW staff to begin a six- to 12-month review of the department’s hatchery and fishery reform policy, designed to promote the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead while supporting sustainable fisheries. The policy, originally adopted by the commission in 2009, is available on WDFW’s website at https://wdfw.wa.gov/commission/policies/c3619.html.
- Received a briefing on draft proposals to close a projected $30 million shortfall in the department’s 2019-21 budget, and draft requests to expand capacity in key areas to fulfill the department’s mission. The commission will consider final adoption of the proposals at its Aug. 10-11 meeting.