Just in time for Easter, pygmy rabbits that were bred in captivity are slowing being released into the Columbia Basin region of the American northwest. In 2001, with the wild population dropping quickly, 16 of the diminutive rabbits were gathered up in an attempt to save the species. And just in time, too, as no pygmy rabbits have been seen in the wild since 2004.
Once in captivity, researchers discovered that inbreeding within the small community was preventing the pygmy rabbits from re-establishing themselves. Fortunately, a thriving community of rabbits existed in Idaho. Though fossil evidence showed that the two groups were separated for over 10,000 years and had become genetically distinct, interbreeding was still possible.
With a genetic refresher, rabbits of 75% Columbia Basin and 25% Idaho descent are now being put back in the wild as part of a “soft release” program. A 2007 reintroduction program that simply let the rabbits loose led to most of them being killed off by predators. The soft release will keep the rabbits in outdoor enclosures safe from predators and allow them to learn vital survival skills. Over time, the wild-born offspring will be released to establish their own populations.
Hopefully, these efforts will have pygmy rabbits hopping around for generations to come.
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