New England cottontail stays off Endangered Species List

In this June 2012 Day file photo, a young New England cottontail rabbit, from the New England cottontail rabbit breeding program at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, sits quietly in a cage at the zoo in Providence. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced Friday that thanks to an eight-year multi-state initiative, the New England cottontail rabbit will not be placed on the Endangered Species List because the species is rebounding from decades of decline. (Tim Cook/The Day)
In this June 2012 Day file photo, a young New England cottontail rabbit, from the New England cottontail rabbit breeding program at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, sits quietly in a cage at the zoo in Providence. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced Friday that thanks to an eight-year multi-state initiative, the New England cottontail rabbit will not be placed on the Endangered Species List because the species is rebounding from decades of decline. (Tim Cook/The Day)

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced Friday that thanks to an eight-year multistate initiative, the New England cottontail rabbit will not be placed on the Endangered Species List because the species is rebounding from decades of decline.

“Thanks to the dedication of many partners, we can now say that future generations will know the cottontail — and not just through a character in children’s literature,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in the announcement in Dover, N.H., referring to Thornton Burgess’ “The Adventures of Peter Cottontail,” which was inspired by New England’s only native rabbit. “This is a great Endangered Species Act success story of how proactive conservation across a landscape can benefit not only the cottontail, but other wildlife, and people who rely on healthy New England forests.”

The New England cottontail was named a candidate in 2006 for Endangered Species status, which would have brought a host of legal protections to remaining populations along with restrictions in areas where they are found to prevent extinction.

Since then, projects throughout New England have created thousands of acres of new habitat for the rabbits, released captive-bred bunnies and enlisted the support of private landowners, conservation groups, land trusts and state environmental agencies.

The population is now estimated at 10,500 across the six New England states, three-quarters of the way towards the goal of 13,500 New England cottontails by 2030, according to a news release issued by the Interior Department and Fish & Wildlife Service.

Key among the restoration efforts are projects in eastern Connecticut, where one of the five remaining core populations of the once-common rabbit lives.

Over the last 50 to 60 years, the numbers have declined as the shrubby thickets and young forests they inhabit have turned into mature forests throughout New England.

The New England cottontail’s larger non-native cousin, the Eastern cottontail — brought by hunters in the early 1900s — now comprises about 80 percent of all rabbits in the region.

Paul Rothbart, habitat program supervisor for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said Connecticut not only harbors core populations in New London, Windham and Litchfield counties, but was also poised to be a leader in the restoration efforts because of research projects already underway here.

“We knew where there were good numbers of rabbits, and we knew where to begin in targeting our projects,” he said.

Connecticut’s population of New England cottontails is now estimated at 9,841 rabbits, exceeding the 8,000-rabbit goal set by the Fish & Wildlife Service when the cottontail initiative began.

The “highest potential goal” is 16,000 rabbits. One of the local areas inhabited by New England cottontails is Bluff Point State Park in Groton. New England cottontails are currently listed in Connecticut as a “very important species of greatest conservation need,” he said.

Using federal grants, about 200 acres of state-owned lands have been converted to the thicket habitat the rabbits favor, Rothbart said, and work on another 500 acres is underway.

The James V. Spignesi Jr. Wildlife Management Area in Scotland and Canterbury — one of these areas where new habitat was created — now supports a population of New England cottontails that was not there previously, he said.

Other state projects took place at Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown and the Assekonk Swamp Wildlife Management Area in North Stonington.

In addition, about 821 acres of property owned by land trusts and private individuals have also received grants to create habitat for the rabbits, much of it in eastern Connecticut.

“New London County has seen a lot of activity,” he said.

Projects have been undertaken by the Groton Open Space Association, the Groton Sportsmen’s Club, the Stonington Land Trust and the Avalonia Land Conservancy, among other groups.

Beth Sullivan, Stonington town committee chairwoman and steward for Avalonia, led one of the projects at the land trust’s Peck/Callahan Preserve.

In 2013, 28 acres of mature forest was cut, invasive species were removed, brush piles left to provide cover for the rabbits, and native shrubs planted.

She and other land trust members overcame initial reluctance about cutting down trees once they learned about the value of shrubby habitat not just for New England cottontails but for more than five dozen other species of birds, reptiles, insects and amphibians.

This winter, she said, she hopes to gather a team to go into the area to collect rabbit pellets that can be analyzed to determine whether New England cottontails have moved in yet.

She is pleased these and the other efforts across New England have kept the species from being categorized as “endangered.”

“You can do a lot more working independently keeping it off the list, being proactive rather than reactive,” she said. “But this doesn’t mean we stop working for them. The bunny is the poster child for all the other animals that need those types of landscapes.”

In addition to the habitat work, this region also provided rabbits for a captive breeding program at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence.

New England cottontails trapped at the Pachaug State Forest and private property in North Stonington were brought to the zoo for the program, which has bred and released 130 rabbits thus far.

Wendi Weber, regional director of the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Northeast office, said projects must continue to keep shrubby habitat from growing into mature forest to ensure that New England cottontails continue toward full recovery.

“Our work is not finished,” she said. “We’re still seeking help from landowners willing to make and maintain young forest and shrub land habitat. In most places, this type of habitat will depend on our careful and ongoing management.”

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy



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