BLM Wildlife Biologist Lindsey Rush studies pygmy rabbit habitat in Idaho

Story by Sara Morelli, Public Affairs Specialist (Detail), Idaho State Office. Photos by BLM Idaho.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) congratulates BLM Idaho Burley Field Office Wildlife Biologist Lindsey Rush, who is the 2022 recipient of the Randall B. Smith Emerging Leader Award from the Idaho Chapter of the Wildlife Society. The award honors an Idaho professional with five or fewer years of experience in wildlife conservation, management, or research who demonstrates exceptional initiative, leadership skills and commitment to the field. It is given in memory of Randy Smith, who trained and mentored many young wildlife professionals throughout his career for Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Lindsey Rush smiles as she holds up a pygmy rabbit in a box
Lindsey Rush, Burley Field Office Wildlife Biologist, was awarded the Randall B. Smith Emerging Leader Award at the annual Idaho Chapter of the Wildlife Society meeting.

One of Rush’s impressive accomplishments includes finishing her master’s thesis—which focused on developing region-specific pygmy rabbit habitat models for southern Idaho—and additional course work for the University of Idaho while continuing to work full-time for the BLM Burley Field Office. Her thesis about pygmy rabbit habitat will help inform other BLM biologists about the distribution of suitable habitat across the state and can also be used to help analyze impacts to the species occurring from various land management activities including vegetation management projects, livestock grazing, and realty rights-of-ways.

“I've had some Idaho BLM biologists reach out wanting the dataset, so it's been made available to all of the Idaho biologists. BLM biologists from Utah and Nevada have also been very interested in expanding the project into their states!” explained Rush. 

A pygmy rabbit sits in the snow
Rush’s thesis involved modeling suitable pygmy rabbit habitat. Pygmy rabbits, a BLM Idaho sensitive species, are endemic to the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem in the West.
Lindsey Rush smiles as she leans close to a Pygmy rabbit hole
Pygmy rabbits rely on sagebrush for food and cover. They dig burrows, often in dense stands of big sagebrush.

Pygmy rabbits, a BLM Idaho sensitive species, are endemic to the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem in the West. Rush identified environmental characteristics influencing suitable habitat, modeled predicted pygmy rabbit distribution, and modeled for availability of suitable habitat under projected future climate scenarios.

“Pygmy rabbits, in a sense, are invisible. Most people I work with have never seen them. They're very small, active at early and late times of day, and conceal themselves easily,” Rush said. “My favorite part about working with them is going out into the field and having my coworkers be able to observe them and learn more about their unique ecology. Not to mention, they're pretty cute!”

Rush’s results indicated each region across Idaho had a suite of unique environmental variables that influenced predicted pygmy rabbit habitat. Models for southwest Idaho would be more influenced by climatic variables, such as precipitation and temperature, while topography may be more influential in east-central Idaho where the climate is colder. Additional models also showed future changes in temperature and precipitation could significantly reduce suitable habitat for the species.

“We realized that pygmy rabbit habitat is less understood than we thought, mostly because we don’t know what makes habitat suitable for the species, other than sagebrush obviously. However, this study shows that we’re starting to understand their ecology better which will ultimately help us become better land stewards for them,” Rush explains. 

Map from Rush’s thesis displaying modeled suitable and primary habitat across different regions in Idaho.
Map from Rush’s thesis displaying modeled suitable and primary habitat across different regions in Idaho. Her results indicated that across Idaho, each region had a suite of unique environmental variables that influenced predicted pygmy rabbit habitat.

In addition to her wildlife biologist work and defending her thesis, Rush has hosted regularly scheduled American Red Cross blood drives in Burley, volunteered with Idaho Fish and Game and the Intermountain Bird Observatory, taught elementary school children about the area’s wildlife, and serves as a wildland firefighter.

Paul Makela, Wildlife Program Lead for the BLM Idaho State Office, praised Rush “as one of Idaho BLM’s shining stars.” He added that Rush’s “level of personal commitment and drive is remarkable and noteworthy.”