Terri Edwards, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 413/253-8324
Timothy Male, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, 202/595-2474
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has awarded more than a quarter million in funding for conservation projects to bring back the New England cottontail, a rabbit native to the northeastern United States that has been considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The grants will support cooperative projects among several agencies and organizations to help stop the species' precipitous decline in Maine and New Hampshire, said Mark F. Rockefeller, chairman of the foundation's board.
"We want to prevent the extinction of one of the few mammals that is unique to New England and the northeast and found nowhere else in the world. These grants in Maine and New Hampshire are an initial deposit in what we hope will be a ten-year investment to bring back this native species. This funding isn't just about cottontails - the habitat of the cottontail is shared by other wildlife, such as the American woodcock and a host of other declining plants and animals. Helping cottontails will also protect open space and preserve recreational opportunities for the public," said Rockefeller.
The New England cottontail population has plummeted over the last several decades, disappearing from 86-percent of its historical range. As recently as 1960, cottontails were found east of the Hudson River in New York, across all of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and in southern Vermont, New Hampshire and southern Maine. The species has been considered a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act since 2006, according to Marvin Moriarty, northeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Moriarty said that the New England cottontail is one of more than 122 species of wildlife, including a number of declining song bird populations, that rely on "early successional" - or young, regenerating - forests in the northeast. "It is paramount that we halt the loss of shrubby thicket habitat if we want to bring back the New England cottontail. This grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the matching contributions from participating organizations, will support essential on-the-ground work to help recover this keystone species in areas that it has traditionally inhabited," said Moriarty.
According to Bruce W. Hammond, scientist and regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Center for Conservation Incentives, "As with many declining species, the fate of the New England cottontail rests largely with private landowners, who own and manage much of its remaining habitat. If provided with the right mix of incentives and support, private landowners can make a critical difference in bringing the New England cottontail and other rare species back from the brink. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, along with federal, state and non-profit partners in Maine and New Hampshire have made a major commitment to collaborating with private landowners and making species recovery work."
"It doesn"t take long to create areas of regenerating forest undergrowth preferred by the species," said Anthony Tur, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological expert on the New England cottontail. "If we restore and create these areas with landowners according to the plan, I expect the rabbits will quickly inhabit them."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will administer the $250,000 portion of the grant dedicated to work in Maine, will hire a restoration coordinator who will work from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine. The coordinator will manage existing and future New England cottontail restoration efforts among natural resource agencies; private, corporate, municipal and state landowners; and non-profit organizations. A companion grant, submitted by New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, dedicates $40,000 towards restoration work in New Hampshire that will be overseen by the Wildlife Management Institute.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for the Wildlife Management Institute to partner with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to recover New England cottontail," said Scot Williamson, vice-president of the Wildlife Management Institute. "We have been working closely for five years with other conservation entities to recover American woodcock, another species dependent on shrubland habitats, and we will shift the focus of that work to also benefit cottontails."
Over the next three years, the New England cottontail project will:
- Establish up to six focus areas for the species, and reaching out to landowners within these areas to develop specific management plans,
- Work with the Service, State Agencies, The Environmental Defense Fund and other partners to develop a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) program, which will foster voluntary collaborative conservation actions to benefit the species. These agreements are designed to remove regulatory burdens that landowners may incur if they decide to take actions that benefit the species,
- Conduct biological surveys to identify other areas where New England cottontail occur, and
- Create two management demonstration areas totaling 100 acres or more, where scientific monitoring protocols will be developed to evaluate the program's success and allow managers to adapt management techniques in response to new information.
The NFWF grant was matched by more than $700,000 in cash and in-kind contributions from many public and private entities, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, New Hampshire Fish and Game, Wildlife Management Institute, University of New Hampshire, Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, Central Maine Power, American Forest Foundation, Wells Reserve/Laudholm Trust, AmeriCorps/Maine Conservation Corps, Maine Forest Service, Maine Master Gardeners, private landowners and other sources.
Biologists attribute the precarious decline in New England cottontails mostly to the loss of early successional forests, often called thickets. The primary threat to the species is the loss of habitat through forest maturation. Areas of new forest regeneration have also been lost and fragmented through human activity, increased exposure of the New England cottontail to predators and prevented dispersal of rabbits to new areas. Additionally, the proliferation of non-native plants, such as multiflora rose, honeysuckle bush and autumn olive, non-native animals such as the Eastern cottontail, and thriving white-tailed deer populations may have reduced the amount of food available to the New England cottontail.
Though the New England cottontail is almost identical to the eastern cottontail, it is a little smaller and darker and requires larger patches of impenetrable thickets to survive. The eastern cottontail is an introduced species that seems better able to adapt to a variety of habitats, is better able to avoid predators and tends to colonize newly available habitats prior to the arrival of the New England cottontail.
An independent 501 (c) 3 charity established by Congress in 1984, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation sustains, restores, and enhances the Nation's fish, wildlife, plants, and habitats. The Foundation's greatest asset is its position at the nexus of the conservation community. Its myriad conservation partnerships connect it with potentially every federal and state agency, key industry leaders, concerned private citizens, and nonprofit leadership from the international to the local level. And the results speak for themselves: since its establishment, NFWF has awarded 10,000 grants to over 3,500 organizations in the United States and abroad and leveraged - with its partners - more than $600 million in federal and private funds into more than $1.5 billion for on-the-ground conservation. For more information, visit www.nfwf.org.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.
The Wildlife Management Institute (www.wildlifemanagementinstitute.org) is a private, non-profit, science and educational organization staffed by experienced professional wildlife biologists. The Institute's mission is to provide leadership necessary to restore, conserve and enhance North American wildlife populations and habitats and promote conservation and professional management for compatible recreational uses of wildlife resources.