Kelly Gillin  /  AP
This pygmy rabbit was part of a group released to the wild near Ephrata, Wash., last March 13.
updated 1/8/2008 8:25:03 PM ET 2008-01-09T01:25:03

The federal government said Tuesday it will consider endangered species protection for the pygmy rabbit, which is struggling to survive in eight western states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will conduct a scientific review to decide if the tiny rabbit — the smallest in North America — deserves protection as a threatened or endangered species.

"The finding does not mean that the service has decided it is appropriate to list the pygmy rabbit," said Bob Williams, supervisor of the agency in Reno, Nev. But it does trigger a thorough review of biological information.

In 2003, the federal government listed pygmy rabbits in Eastern Washington as endangered, and efforts to reintroduce the rabbits have struggled as the animals have been devoured by predators.

Because the rabbits are already listed in Washington, the new study covers the states of California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah.

Adult pygmy rabbits are from 9 to 12 inches long, and weigh from 0.5 to 1.2 pounds. They typically live in areas of tall, dense sagebrush where the soil is loose enough for them to dig burrows.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will have three options after its review. It can decide that protection is not necessary; it can decide that listing the rabbits as threatened or endangered is warranted, triggering a yearlong round of studies and comments; or it can decide that protection is warranted but precluded by higher priority activities.

The service in 2005 initially rejected a petition that protecting pygmy rabbits was warranted. Last September, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge in Idaho ruled the agency "acted in a manner that was arbitrary and capricious and contrary to the applicable law," and a new 90-day review was performed.

Pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) eat sagebrush and are one of the few rabbits in North America that dig their own burrows. They have lost habitat because of farming, fires, mining, energy development and recreation.

Earlier this year, the government introduced 20 pygmy rabbits in the Columbia Basin. But within a month only one male remained, because of predators.

Wildlife agencies had spent years and millions of dollars in a captive breeding program intended to restore the species. Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, which no longer exist in the wild, were mated with more genetically diverse Idaho pygmy rabbits.

There are still about 80 of the crossbred rabbits in breeding programs at the Oregon Zoo in Portland and at Washington State University in Pullman, and efforts to reintroduce them will continue.

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