Most of a group of 20 endangered rabbits that were reintroduced to the wild with great fanfare last month have been killed by predators, state officials said.
Only four of the rabbits released on March 13 remained at the Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area as of Tuesday, said David Hays, pygmy rabbit coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Hays said two males were removed earlier this month and will be returned at the end of April. The other 14 rabbits are believed to have fallen victim to predators, mainly coyotes, but also hawks and owls, Hays said.
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The rabbits, small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, eat sagebrush and are the only rabbits in the United States that dig their own burrows.
The Sagebrush Flat Wildlife Area, about 10 miles north of Ephrata, is considered the last native home of the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit. The rabbit was listed as a state endangered species in 1993 and federally protected in 2003.
The 3,700-acre release site has been watched daily by Fish and Wildlife staff. Several of the rabbits were fitted with GPS monitors. Of the four rabbits remaining at the site, three are females who could be pregnant, officials said.
Hays said the rapid decline in population does not doom the multimillion-dollar project to return the near-extinct rabbit to its natural environment. More rabbits will be released in the area, and experts are looking for ways to reduce predation.
"We're taking it week by week. This is valuable learning time," he said.