The state has been rehabilitating rare pygmy rabbits in Central Washington for about 15 years. A wildfire just tore through a breeding site, killing as many as 70 rabbits. But dozens survived, thanks to rescuers.

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A day after the Sutherland Canyon fire blew through Beezley Hills, the ash-covered earth was still smoldering.

The sun was relentless and temperatures were creeping into the 90s, said Jon Gallie, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

Somehow, though, 33 rare pygmy rabbits, burrowed 3 to 4 feet beneath the ashen soil, had managed to survive the conflagration.

Those survivors, found among about 70 pygmy rabbit carcasses, bolster hope the species will be able to continue its rehabilitation in Washington state.

The smallest species of rabbits native to North America, pygmy rabbits live among and eat sagebrush that dots the dry shrub steppe plains of Central Washington.

But the rabbits were almost entirely extirpated from Washington state as agriculture gobbled up much of the state’s sagebrush habitat, said WDFW wildlife manager Matt Monda. About 15 years ago, WDFW began a project to collect remaining wild pygmy rabbits, hoping to breed and release them back into the wild.

The 10-acre Beezley Hills breeding site is one of four in Washington where biologists have been breeding the rabbits and releasing some young into the wild.

The Sutherland Canyon fire had Gallie and other WDFW scientists fearing for the rabbit’s tenuous recovery.

Last Wednesday, Gallie and his team had watched from a nearby hillside as strong winds sent flames racing toward Beezley Hills. They didn’t have enough time to trap and relocate the rabbits, but drove down to prepare as best they could.

“Embers were dropping around us. We were watching the helicopter and aerial retardant drops close enough to where we could smell it,” he said.

Gallie and his team turned on a solar-powered irrigation well pump to irrigate a small, 200-square-foot patch of sagebrush. That extra moisture likely saved the tiny rabbits, which need sagebrush for food and shelter from predatory birds’ aerial attacks.

When Gallie returned the next day with Bureau of Land Management firefighters, that was the only stretch of land to survive the fire’s blaze.

“We went through the emotional roller coaster thinking we had lost so much,” Gallie said. “To our shock and excitement, within our breeding enclosures we saw surviving rabbits.”

Because the fire was still active in the area, only those equipped with firefighting gear could travel to the breeding area. Gallie and the firefighters captured the rabbits by setting metal traps in their burrows.

”They were pretty easy to trap. They had no food, they had no cover,” Gallie said. “Pretty much their only choice is to stay in the burrow or come in our trap.”

Firefighters then shuttled them to Gallie’s WDFW colleagues who had set up a makeshift triage outside the fire line.

“The fire crew were actually fighting over who got to relay animals,” Gallie said. “There was lots of cheering and oohing and aahing. Every time our crews saw a truck pulling up, there was excitement.”

Gallie, firefighters and other WDFW officials transported 33 of the endangered rabbits to other breeding sites. Some infrastructure, including fencing and the solar-powered pump, survived at Beezley Hills, but it will be years before the area can regrow and support a rabbit population, Gallie said.

“It took a decade of work to get where we were out there,” he said.

Monda said the fire’s destruction is a blow to the program, but the breeding sites were separated to prevent total catastrophe should fire roar through.

“Fire is regularly and routinely in that type of area,” Monda said. “Sagebrush habitat — it really goes up like a torch.”