'Everybody was really excited': Wildland firefighters rescue pygmy rabbits

Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management - Oregon

WENATCHEE, Wash. - Bureau of Land Management firefighters saved dozens of endangered pygmy rabbits from a wildfire Wednesday night.

According to the Bureau of Land Management - Oregon, the Sutherland Canyon Fire near Weantchee, Wash. Overran the controlled sagebrush breeding ground.

After the fire swept through, BLM firefighters guided a state wildlife biologist to the area and “quickly mobilized a ‘capture team.’”

“Everybody was really excited to be a part of that,” said Richard Parrish, a BLM fire management officer based in Spokane.

The BLM said the ground and most of the sagebrush the pygmy rabbits rely on were charred black.

“In some areas, the soil was still warm to the touch,” The BLM – Oregon said in a Facebook post.

For the next five or six hours, the firefighters helped the biologist by crawling on their bellies and reaching into the rabbit burrows.

“The BLM reserve fire crew was amazing," said Matt Monda, regional manager for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. "While waiting to be assigned to fire duty, they joined our staff to rescue the survivors, which escaped the flames by retreating into their burrows."

Their efforts paid off. The firefighters managed to rescue 32 pygmy rabbits. The rabbits were evacuated from the scorched breeding ground and taken to other nearby breeding compounds. Washington wildlife officials estimate 70 rabbits died in the fire.

“Wildfires are a fact of life here in sagebrush country,” said Monda in a WDFW release. "The fire was a setback for our restoration program, but we can start making up for those losses next year.”

Pygmy rabbits are the smallest rabbit species in North America. On average, they weigh about a pound and they can easily fit in a person’s hand.

Their diet is almost entirely sagebrush and they only live for a few years.

The rehabilitation program has released hundreds of pygmy rabbits into the wild since 2011. The BLM said the Sutherland Canyon Fire was started by lightning and is now 90 percent contained.

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