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Rare Bunnies Benefit from Controlled Burns in Massachusetts
Photo Credit: Anne Schnell, USFWS
The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) loves the thickets and brush found in young forests in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. This cottontail, the region’s only native rabbit, needs young, regenerating forests that provide abundant food and cover from predators. But this early stage of forest is exceedingly rare in the Northeast, leading to the loss of more than 80 percent of the New England cottontail’s range in the last 50 years. Habitat loss is the biggest threat to this unique species, which is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annually assesses the cottontail’s status as a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, and the agency is working with partners across the cottontail’s historic range to proactively reverse the declining trend of its populations.
Some may be surprised at one of the tools used to manage and protect the New England cottontail’s Massachusetts habitat: fire.
New England cottontails cannot live in mature woods; they need the fresh thickets, shrubs and dense new growth that sprout up after wildfires.
Photo Credit: USFWS
Controlled burns, also known as prescribed burns, not only improve wildlife habitat, but they reduce the fire danger for towns like Mashpee, Massachusetts and other Cape Cod communities. A few decades ago, an uncontrolled wildfire roared through an area of pine barrens on Cape Cod, burning 5120 acres (2072 hectares) down to the sandy soil.
A diverse team of partners—including the Service, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, local land trusts, and the town of Mashpee—is working in the interface of urban and wild lands. This team is managing the interface by targeting areas with the most burnable vegetation and strategically cutting undergrowth, thinning the forest, and conducting controlled, planned burns that continue the natural renewal process and reduces fire danger to nearby homes and businesses.
“Human safety, the health of the pine barrens, and wildlife like the cottontail depend on our management of wildfire and the hazardous fuels, like pine needles and twigs, that have built up over time,” said Mashpee Fire Chief George Baker. “We’re reducing fuels on patches from 17 acres (7 ha) to hundreds of acres. Not only will we create better and safer access for officers to areas where fires may occur, but we will also open up the canopy to allow regrowth.”
The pitch pines and scrub oaks that grow in Mashpee’s pine barrens are designed by nature to burn, their flammable characteristics cleansing and rejuvenating the forests.
“They’re built to burn, to continue a mosaic of mature and young forest that provides healthy space for a diversity of plants and wildlife,” said Dave Walker, a fire management officer for the Service. “Our forest practices, including fire, mimic this natural process—because in our society, our forests need management, just like our backyards.”
New England cottontails were found in Mashpee in 2006. By spring 2011, partners verified the existence of 21 cottontails through trapping and genetic testing. They are looking forward to improving the habitat for this and possible neighboring populations.
“The tribal people feel strongly about helping species that are indigenous like us,” said Chuckie Green, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Assistant Director of Natural Resources. “People have not allowed Mother Nature to be in control, so we are responsible for bringing back the habitat that this rabbit needs.”
Improving habitat improves the outlook for these rare rabbits. New England cottontails have a high reproductive rate – they do, indeed, breed like rabbits – so populations have the potential to rebound when the animals have good living conditions.
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