When your task is trapping a rabbit, you’ve got to be on the hop. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. In eastern Idaho, the Lemhi Valley is a high-desert valley that runs along the border with Montana. It’s a sagebrush steppe environment, which means it’s a mix of shrub and grasslands, and it is just a gorgeous, gorgeous intact piece of sagebrush landscape.

With support from the National Science Foundation, a team of scientists is trying to understand this critical sagebrush habitat from the perspective of a small but important long-term resident, the pygmy rabbit. They’re trapping and collaring in hopes that their research can contribute to not just an understanding of rabbits but also an understanding of how this system functions so that it can continue to exist in a healthy condition.

Lisa Shipley.

Sheltering from the heat and cold and predators is important, but so is food. Sometimes the rabbits risk a venture into the open to eat. Lisa Shipley is a forging ecologist with Washington State University. “Especially in the winter, it might eat 99% of its diet in sagebrush, ’cause it’s very nutritious,” Shipley said. “It has a lot of protein in it, but it also has a lot of toxic chemicals. It’s the only mammal that can eat sagebrush for a virtually exclusive diet.”

Using tracking data from the collars and imagery from unmanned aerial vehicles, the team generates maps that show where and when the rabbits spend their time, in burrows, under the sagebrush, and out in the open. Maps like these can tell them a lot about how the rabbits use and ultimately shape the landscape around them. They have to make choices all the time. so they can choose to forage in an area that has high-quality forage, but it might be more risky.

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