Sportsmen's Club helps to restore rabbit habitat

While the Easter Bunny may be done with his rounds for the year, New England's native rabbits are still on the minds of wildlife officials and sportsmen groups, including the Groton Sportsmen's Club.

As part of an effort to rebuild populations of the New England cottontail, which is being considered for endangered species status, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is working with groups including the Groton club on projects to improve habitat in areas where the rabbits have been found. Loss of habitat and competition with the non-native eastern cottontail are blamed for the decline of the New England cottontail.

Over the past year, the Groton group has been working with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Natural Resources Conservation Service on projects to create more of the shrubby, open habitat favored by the New England cottontails.

That involves clearing some of the 380-acre forest the group owns in North Stonington and Voluntown, adjacent to Pachaug State Forest, as well as removing invasive autumn olive and multiflora rose and replacing them with native shrubs. The cleared branches are being turned into brush piles the rabbits use for cover.

"We're reclaiming some old fields and creating some forest openings," Ray Thiel, game committee chairman for the Groton Sportsmen's Club, said Saturday. "Our property was known to have cottontails, since some were trapped there a couple of years ago."

This spring, he said, two sections of forest, one 9 acres and the other 5 acres, will be cleared and turned into shrubby, meadow habitat.

Thiel said the new habitat is good for the deer, pheasants and other game the sportsmen hunt on the property, as well as for the rabbits. The shrubby thickets provide places for the small animals to hide from predators."It makes it harder for the foxes and hawks to catch them," he said.

j.benson@theday.com

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