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Rare rabbits get a helping hand

Wildlife experts in the US are making a final effort to save an endangered pygmy rabbit, believed extinct in the wild since mid-2004.

The Columbia Basin pygmy is the smallest rabbit in North America, and can fit in a person's hand. Adults weigh about a pound and measure less than a foot in length. The previous effort to reintroduce the pygmy in 2007 ended badly when they were quickly eaten by their many predators.

Some 100 pygmy rabbits are being released this time into large wire enclosures.

The rabbits - who were raised in captivity for this last-ditch effort - must learn quickly to find food, breed and avoid being eaten. The wire enclosures give them a fighting chance to survive, scientists say.

"If this doesn't work, I'm not sure what Plan B would be," said Matt Monda of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who has been working for years to save the endangered species.

A key feature of the new rescue effort is a six-acre enclosure with a six-foot-tall wire fence is intended to keep out coyotes, badgers, weasels, snakes and to disrupt birds of prey. It has an electrified wire near the bottom to keep predators from digging under. The fence posts have spikes on top to prevent raptors from gaining a perch to hunt.

The enclosure surrounds plenty of sagebrush for food, and has dozens of artificial and real burrows where the rabbits can hide and, hopefully, breed.

Once the rabbits grow used to the big enclosure, they are being moved two at a time to smaller enclosures, where they are gradually introduced to predators through tunnels to the outside. Finally they are released outright.

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