Pygmy Rabbits, Grouse Fighting for Survival as Wildfires Burn in Washington state

On the U.S. federal endangered species list sits the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, the smallest rabbit in the country that grows to less than 12 inches in length and weighs less than one pound.

Though pygmy rabbits live in nine U.S. states, the Columbia Basin population that burrows in Washington state is considered particularly vulnerable to climate change, a vulnerability that wildlife experts have witnessed firsthand over the last decade as wildfires raged throughout the state.

Pygmy rabbit
Wildfire "doesn't just take out their habitat—it kills the rabbits in their burrows," said Jay Kehne, the sagelands program lead at Conservation Northwest. "They go there for protection, and they don't get it because the fires are too hot and moving too fast.” In the image above, a pygmy rabbit is photographed in Douglas County, Washington. Photo provided by Michael Schroeder

Researchers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Conservation Northwest, an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), identify pygmy rabbits as one of the species they are most concerned about during wildfire season, which they note is growing longer and fiercer.

Amid last year's record-setting wildfire season, fires that started over the Labor Day weekend in Washington state burned more than 500,000 acres in less than 48 hours, according to a report from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

One of those wildfire events, known as the Pearl Hill Fire, had what WDFW research scientist Michael Schroeder described as a "pretty traumatic" impact on the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit population.

"We were trying to expand the population, trying to re-establish a population in an area where they had formerly existed but had been extirpated," Schroeder told Newsweek. "In doing that, we had set up sort of a transition pen, a place where you can raise the rabbits and transition them into living in the wild."

The devastating effects of that fire are still being felt.

""Not only did [the Pearl Hill Fire] burn the habitat where we were planning to move them, but it burned the pen where the rabbits were living," Schroeder said. "It was pretty dramatic, and catastrophic for that effort."

Jay Kehne, the sagelands program lead for Conservation Northwest, told Newsweek there were only about 180 Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits in the state when a fire took out nearly half that population four years ago.

"It doesn't just take out their habitat—it kills the rabbits in their burrows." Kehne said. "They go there for protection, and they don't get it because the fires are too hot and moving too fast."

The effects are devastating.

"You're down to each fire taking out half the known population, essentially," he said.

Washington's pygmy rabbits live in shrubsteppe and eat sagebrush, both of which wildfires tend to burn quickly.

Greater sage-grouse
A greater sage-grouse is photographed displaying in its natural, unburned habitat in Douglas County, Washington. Photo provided by Michael Schroeder

Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and greater sage-grouse also live in shrubsteppe habitats and are listed as endangered in Washington, though they do not have the same listing at the federal level.

Kehne estimates about 700 sage-grouse live in Washington, and said the impact of wildfires on their habitats has contributed to their endangered status in the state.

Schroeder, whose work primarily focuses on Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and sage-grouse, said researchers observed a 77% decline since last year in the sharp-tailed grouse that visited courtship areas, known as lek sites, located within recent fire perimeters, though the lek sites outside those perimeters saw a 13% increase in grouse. Meanwhile, researchers noted a 22% decline of sage-grouse within the fire perimeters and a 4% increase outside the fire areas.

Sharp-tailed grouse
A sharp-tailed grouse is photographed in Washington state. Photo provided by Michael Schroeder

"The big issue that remains to be seen is what the long-term impacts are," Schroeder said. Nesting options for female grouse are limited, he said, so they may return to recently burned areas despite the lack of grass and sagebush cover, which the birds need to protect their nests from predators.

"To make matters worse, last year and this year we've been very dry, and this year is just unbelievably dry," Schroeder added. "To top it off, we've had this record-breaking heat snap that has made things even worse. It's like we're getting hit from all directions, all at the same time: fire, drought, heat. It's getting tough."

Sage-grouse habitat
"People will say, we always had fires; it's always been a part of nature, and it's always recovered," Jay Kehne, the sagelands program lead for Conservation Northwest, told Newsweek. "But there's some huge caveats, some huge differences. These fires that are occurring now have the threat that didn't exist in ancient history." In this photo, Sage-grouse habitat is photographed a few days after a wildfire burned in Douglas County, Washington, in 2020. Photo provided by Michael Schroeder

Schroeder and Kehne both identified pygmy rabbits and grouse as animals of top concern amid escalating wildfire threats.

But those aren't the only species at risk.

"The concerns are for the species in critical need, the endangered ones, but also all the other species that live out there: numerous songbirds, raptors, gophers, rattlesnakes, badgers, deer, elk, bear," Kehne said.

The number and intensity of the fires are wreaking havoc with wildlife populations.

"It goes on and on," he said. "All of those species—it's getting harder and harder with more intense, more often and bigger fires."

John Kanter, a senior wildlife biologist at the NWF, said wildfires are often viewed by researchers as useful for habitat management. However, wildfire escalation in recent years introduces a threat of "sterilization" among species within their reach.

Healthy sagebrush
Healthy sagebrush is photographed along the upper Moses Coulee in Douglas County, Washington, in March 2018. Chase Gunnell/Conservation Northwest

"As a wildlife biologist, we think about fire in a very positive light for what it's done to maintain quality habitat across the landscape. But that's changing," Kanter told Newsweek. "The name of the game is not managing for some set of persistent conditions."

While Kehne said fires in the past would jump among bunch grasses, invasive species like cheatgrass that spread easily across the landscape now make it easier for fires to grow into what he described as "an inferno." Schroeder also identified cheatgrass as "a big deal" for the ease with which its seeds travel, often by attaching to animal fur and spreading wherever the animals go.

"Cheatgrass is a serious issue, and it does make it easier to start these fires in many situations," Schroeder said. Finding ways to limit its spread is "one of the things all of us across the West have been working really hard on," he added.

Sharp-tailed grouse in flight
Sharp-tailed grouse are photographed flying above unburned shrubsteppe in Washington state. Ferdi Businger/Conservation Northwest

"People will say, we always had fires; it's always been a part of nature, and it's always recovered. But there's some huge caveats, some huge differences," Kehne said, pointing to cheatgrass spread as an example. "These fires that are occurring now have the threat that didn't exist in ancient history."

In addition to concerns about invasive species that serve as tinder for wildfires, the current drought conditions and heat waves that are already believed to have killed hundreds of people in the Western U.S. this summer raise fire threat levels for states like Washington as wildfire season gets underway.

As wildfire concerns grow, Schroeder said last year's fires in Washington highlighted the similarities in the threats humans and animals face.

"If anybody ever wanted recognition that wildlife and people are in this same situation together, wildfires like [the Pearl Hill Fire] help illustrate it, because it's impacting all of us," Schroeder said. "It's impacting the wildlife, it's impacting the people who live out there, it's impacting the habitats upon which we all depend."