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Sagebrush Steppe Restoration and Pygmy Rabbits
Janet Rachlow, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID
Pygmy rabbits have been described as mammalian sagebrush specialists because sagebrush is their primary source of both food and cover. Although historic data are not available, there has been widespread concern that the species has declined with loss and alteration of sagebrush habitats. A disjunct population in Washington is listed as a federally endangered distinct population segment, and captive breeding is underway to conserve that population, known as the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit. A petition for threatened or endangered status for the species across the range was denied in 2005, in part due to a lack of information about the status of the species. These events spurred interest in the species and renewed efforts to better understand its ecology and current distribution. Studies of habitat selection and use have focused on the two features thought to be most important for this species, shrubs and soils. Several studies have documented characteristics of sagebrush associated with presence of pygmy rabbits. In general, the rabbits occupy the tallest and densest sagebrush present in an area, although height and cover of shrubs vary markedly among occupied areas. Pygmy rabbits construct burrow systems that are used throughout the year, and hence, deeper soils with compositions that support burrow structures also are believed to influence the distribution of the species. Because taller sagebrush often is associated with deeper soils, an understanding of the relative importance of these two variables is incomplete. Our research suggests that vegetation cover and density of burrow systems influence patterns of movement, and that pygmy rabbit use relatively large areas and are capable of long-distance dispersal. Several questions remain regarding how pygmy rabbits relate to their habitat and consequently, how they might respond to sagebrush steppe restoration. On-going efforts to reintroduce the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit provide examples of challenges for translocation that might follow sagebrush restoration efforts.