A crew of Washington state firefighters took a break from battling wildfires to save some tiny, adorable wildlife last week, according to a Facebook post from the Oregon Bureau of Land Management.
The Sutherland Canyon Fire, which sparked near Wenatchee, Wash., on June 26, swept through a state-managed breeding ground for endangered pygmy rabbits as it burned 38,000 acres of wildland into early July. That meant bad news for the small bunnies, which were deemed a threatened species in 2007 by Idaho judge Edward Lodge.
“The ground and most the sagebrush that the pygmy rabbits rely on were charred black. In some areas, the soil was still warm to the touch,” the BLM post said.
The rabbits are small and delicate, BLM officials said — they weigh about a pound and can easily fit in a person’s hand full-grown. They almost exclusively subsist off the sagebrush that was scorched by the wildfire. In an effort to save some of the already-endangered rabbits, the BLM got to work on an unusual rescue.
A team of seven BLM firefighters accompanied a state wildlife biologist to the breeding area as part of a “capture team,” said Spokane BLM fire management officer Richard Parrish.
“Everybody was really excited to be a part of that,” Parrish said in the post.
For upward of five hours, the firefighters laid on their bellies, reaching into rabbit burrows to turn up as many surviving pygmies as they could find.
“The BLM reserve fire crew was amazing,” said Matt Monda, regional manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, in the post. “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.”
The capture team found and relocated 32 pygmy rabbits, though 70 other rabbits were killed by the lightning-sparked fire.
“Wildfires are a fact of life here in sagebrush country,” said Monda in a WDFW release.
While the fire may have been a setback for the pygmy rabbit population, thanks to the help of BLM firefighters, officials think the rabbits can continue to recover.