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Rabbits are rescued from floodwaters on San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The abundant water in California has been a boost for many animals and plants, including a superbloom of wildflowers. But for some animals, it's also been life-threatening. NPR's Lauren Sommer takes us to the Central Valley, where rescues are underway for an endangered rabbit.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER RUSHING)

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: The San Joaquin River is unrecognizable right now. This is a river that goes completely dry in some years because it's so heavily used in California. Now it's overflowing.

ERIC HOPSON: It's really good if you're a fish. The ducks and the waterfowl are really loving it right now.

SOMMER: Eric Hopson is refuge manager at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. The river here has gone over its banks, swamping stands of cottonwood trees. We spot a beaver among them.

HOPSON: Yeah. The beavers are - they're kind of homeless 'cause their lodges and burrows are inundated. But we've found that they're very quick to make a new home.

SOMMER: It's good for a lot of wildlife but not all of them.

HOPSON: Do we want to make wakes?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's up to you.

HOPSON: OK.

SOMMER: We head out in an aluminum boat looking for islands of dry land in all this water.

HOPSON: So we have this strip of high ground that isn't flooded. But some of this is going to be flooded when the water comes up another 2 or 3 more feet.

SOMMER: That will give the wildlife nowhere to go, including what Hopson spots right ahead.

HOPSON: So we do have a riparian brush rabbit.

SOMMER: It's a brown rabbit, only a foot long, and it's highly endangered.

HOPSON: The late 1990s, they were thought to be near-extinct. In fact, there was a period of time where they were actually thought to be extinct.

SOMMER: This rabbit is in a wire cage, a small trap that Hopson has set so it can be moved somewhere safer. It'll be vaccinated, as well, against a new threat, rabbit hemorrhagic disease, a fatal virus that recently arrived here. So far, Hopson and his team have rescued more than 360 endangered rabbits. Some were plucked from tree branches after the dry ground disappeared. These rabbits didn't always need saving, of course. In the past, when the river flooded, the rabbits would just move to higher ground.

HOPSON: Unfortunately, nowadays, most of that natural high grounds right up slope from the floodplains is taken up with farmland.

SOMMER: Farm fields don't provide any shelter for the rabbits, so they have nowhere to go. Hopson says the wildlife refuge is trying to acquire more of this higher-ground land. But it's tough in a prime agricultural area.

HOPSON: Very few farmers are willing to sell that land, and when they are, it's very highly priced.

SOMMER: But with climate change bringing bigger weather swings to California, including more flooding, expanding this habitat could be key for endangered rabbits and the whole ecosystem. Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.