A drone flies above the deserts of central Idaho, photographing the sagebrush landscape below every 2.5 seconds. The high-resolution photos over the Lemhi Valley near the small town of Salmon, capture the native habitat of the pygmy rabbit. The world’s smallest rabbit native uses sagebrush as both food and shelter throughout the mountain west in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Nevada.
One isolated subspecies resides in Washington state’s Columbia Basin and is listed as an endangered species by the federal government.
It’s because of the rabbit’s reliance on one plant and its endangered status that the drone does its daily reconnaissance. The UAV itself is operated by the University of Florida’s Unmanned Aircraft System Wildlife Project, but the endeavor is a massive collaborative effort by Washington State University, the University of Idaho, and Boise State.
Meghan Camp is working on the project as part of her doctoral studies in wildlife ecology at WSU. “An adult weighs a pound,” she says. “And sagebrush accounts for 90 percent of their diet in the winter. They’re really unique.”
Unfortunately, they’re also at risk. Before the advent of ranching, farming, and road building, sagebrush covered the West. As settlers moved into pygmy rabbit territory, the habitat became fragmented and destroyed. Now WSU and the Oregon Zoo have partnered to study and breed the rabbits and save the species from extinction. Scientists and researchers have been studying their biology, breeding habits, and habitat since 1999. Camp’s work, which focuses mainly on captive rabbits in Pullman, is part of this.
“They’re really an elusive species,” she says. Their short breeding season in early spring produces kits that have only a 20 percent survival rate. They are a vital piece of the food chain, prey for coyotes, owls, hawks, and badgers. And all this is without the human threat to their sagebrush habitat.
The drone, with its eyes in the sky, quantifies the amount of sagebrush available to the rabbits. With infrared sensors, it surveys the quality and health of the brush. Camp says the UAV isn’t there to look for rabbits. “It’s really there to monitor the habitat,” she says. “Then we can inform management decisions and have a better understanding of the rabbit’s needs.”