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Meet the Pygmy Rabbit and the Bird Conservation Focal Species that Share its Sagebrush Habitats

By eBird Northwest Team September 10, 2018

Pygmy rabbit by Kip Richmond, winner of the ODFW Habitat Conservation Stamp Art Contest.

Species: Pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis)

Status in the Northwest:

  • Washington: state-endangered, federally-endangered (Columbia Basin Distinct Population Segment)
  • Oregon: state-sensitive, federal species of concern
  • State Wildlife Action Plans for Washington and Oregon also identify the pygmy rabbit as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need.

Habitat: Pygmy rabbits require sagebrush, specifically areas of tall, dense sagebrush with deep, loose soils suitable for digging burrows. Sagebrush and associated native plants provide both food and cover for pygmy rabbits.

Conservation Issues: Habitat loss and degradation, often due to agricultural conversion, unmanaged grazing, invasive species, development, and altered fire regimes are among key threats. Predation, loss of genetic diversity, and other issues relating to small, fragmented populations have also impacted pygmy rabbits in the Columbia Basin.

Range: Historical range encompassed portions of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah.

Oregon-Washington Partners in Flight Focal Species for Shrub-steppe Habitat: Regional bird conservation plans identify suites of focal species that serve as indicators, representing a variety of conditions needed to recover and sustain diverse ecosystems and associated wildlife.

Table 1. Priority habitat features and associated focal species for conservation in shrub-steppe habitats of the Columbia Plateau Landbird Conservation Planning Region1

1 Altman, B., and A. Holmes. 2000. Conservation Strategy for Landbirds in the Columbia Plateau of Eastern Oregon and Washington. Version 1.0. Oregon-Washington Partners in Flight, American Bird Conservancy and Point Reyes Bird Observatory.
2‘Sage sparrow’ is referred to as ‘sagebrush sparrow’ below, reflecting a recent taxonomic change/split.

Similar to the pygmy rabbit, many bird species of the shrub-steppe prefer habitats dominated by big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). The Oregon-Washington Partners in Flight conservation strategy for sagebrush habitats uses greater sage-grouse and sagebrush sparrow as “umbrella” species to help determine desired habitat conditions for various sagebrush-associated species. Both of these focal bird species have experienced reductions in their historical breeding ranges due to habitat loss. As indicated in Table 1, key habitat objectives outlined in the conservation plan include maintaining expansive areas of high quality sagebrush containing a diverse understory, contiguous sagebrush, sagebrush cover, and sagebrush height. Managing for the habitat needs of these focal species will help meet the habitat needs of many other species dependent on sagebrush ecosystems.

The pygmy rabbit is featured on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 2018 Habitat Conservation Stamp. Proceeds from stamp sales support the Department’s conservation efforts of native species and their habitats. Click here to learn more about the Department’s Habitat Conservation Stamp Program or to purchase a pygmy rabbit stamp.

Additional Resources:

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Pygmy Rabbits in Washington webpage

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pygmy Rabbit (Columbia Basin Distinct Population Segment) webpage

Read more about Sagebrush habitat, the threats it faces and the species that live there on the eBird Northwest Habitat Page.