WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Firefighters with the Bureau of Land Management formed a "capture team" to save dozens of endangered pygmy rabbits after a wildfire overran their breeding ground last week.
The rescue came in the wake of the Sutherland Canyon Fire, which has burned 38,000 south of Wenatchee, Washington. Last Wednesday, according to the BLM, the flames swept through the rabbits' habitat, a state-managed breeding area.
The wildfire left the animals' breeding ground charred. BLM fire management officer Richard Parrish said firefighters escorted a state wildlife biologist to the area and put together a seven-person "capture team" to catch the endangered rabbits.
“Everybody was really excited to be a part of that,” Parrish said.
The surviving rabbits had escaped the heat by burrowing into the ground. The capture team spent hours getting down on the ground and reaching into the burrows, searching for any of the animals still left alive.
Pygmy rabbits saved from Washington wildfire
"The BLM reserve fire crew was amazing," said Matt Monda, regional manager for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. "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."
A total of 32 pygmy rabbits were rescued. Wildlife officials say about 70 rabbits likely died in the fire.
The surviving rabbits were taken to other breeding compounds nearby. Fire crews continue to fight the Sutherland Fire, now 90 percent contained.
Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, which eat sagebrush, were listed a under the Endangered Species Act in 2003. Washington's restoration program has led to hundreds of the animals being released back into the wild since 2011, according to the BLM.
"Wildfires are a fact of life here in sagebrush country,” Monda in a WDFW release. "The fire was a setback for our restoration program, but we can start making up for those losses next year."