Pygmy Rabbit restoration efforts, Douglas and Grand Counties, Soap Lake
As a silent auction winning run by Conservation Northwest, we got the opportunity to see Pygmy Rabbit recovery efforts in Washington in Douglas and Grant Counties. The Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit has been endangered since the population dipped to 16 known individuals in the 90s. Since then there has been considerable effort by Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to breed Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbits with Great Basin Pygmy Rabbits to keep the genetic pool viable and to increase the population. The 2020 wildfire hurt their efforts by destroying breeding enclosures and release sites. More can be read in the WDFW publications on recovery plans, but the Pygmy Rabbit recovery has gone from dire situation to perhaps hopeful.
We got to help WDFW do flush counts in their breeding enclosures. These enclosures were set up by WDFW on habitat deemed rabbit worthy = lots of dense sagebrush. The enclosures varied in shape but ranged in size from 3-6 acres each. To perform flush counts, we walked with WDFW and CNW staff in an evenly spaced line through the enclosures and looked for rabbits running as we passed. Most of our views of these cute little critters were brief as they ran through dense sagebrush and into their burrows. But it was a much better view than if we had tried to find them in the wild (chances of seeing them being very small).
While we were with the WDFW Pygmy Rabbit group, we also visited the soft release sites and places where wild rabbits were found in the winter. Considering that we could see the locations of the breeding enclosures, release sites, and wild populations within 2 days, the Pygmy Rabbits have a tough road to recovery. They simply lack the habitat to have a sustainable population. Most of their current habitat relies on private landowners who agree to conservation agreements with the state. Landowners get tax breaks on their land that is set aside for conservation, but these agreements are short lived and require the land owner to sign up again in the future. The wild populations are reliant on the conservation interest and efforts of private landowners, which can be a scary and uncertain situation.
The whole experience of learning and seeing where and how these rabbits live was enlightening and exciting. I'm glad I was able to monetarily help the conservation efforts as well.
As an added bonus to the silent auction winning, we stayed at the Notaras Lodge in Soap Lake, which is an area of Washington I've never visited. Admittedly, it wasn't the selling point when I bid on the Pygmy Rabbit package, but it turned out to be a fun experience. We had a room with a jet tub that had a tap of mineral water from the lake. I can't say I'd do it again, but it was an experience that I could understand why other people would enjoy it.
The birding around Soap Lake was surprisingly pretty good for being in a small town (that reminded me of a young Salton Sea). Black-neck Stilts waded near the salt grass. A large flock of Red-necked Phalaropes spun in circles on the lake. Eared Grebes and Ruddy Ducks dove into briney waters. A Prairie Falcon glided over empty storefronts. It was a bit of a surreal situation, but a unique one that will stay with me for sure.