While this rare rabbit looks a lot like the ones you’ve seen outdoors, the New England cottontail is found only in the thick tangles and vines of just five spots across New England and New York.
Baby rabbits snuggle together at the captive breeding program at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island. (Photo: Lou Perrotti/Roger Williams Park Zoo)
Cottontails depend on a special type of habitat -- young forest and shrublands -- which also provides food, shelter and places to raise young for a variety of other animals.
They've lost 86 percent of their historic range since the 1960s, and they're even a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
State, federal, local and private partners are following a strategic plan and working together to bring the rabbit back and to create the young forest and shrubland habitat that it depends on. The strategy depends on the help of private landowners in communities across the region, since much of the land targeted for habitat restoration is privately owned.
Here’s a shout-out to some of the folks working to save the New England cottontail:
- Private landowners, companies, land trusts and public land managers are implementing young forest habitat projects (through cutting, shrub planting and prescribed burns) across Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island. Examples include Stonyfield Yogurt Company (NH), Spectra Energy (ME), Tom McAvoy’s farm (CT), Mashpee-Wampanoag Tribe and Orenda Wildlife Land Trust (MA) and Audubon Rhode Island and New York.
- The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I., is raising rabbits in captivity. From there, they’re taken to Ninigret and Great Bay national wildlife refuges to prepare to be released into the wild.
- Universities and scientists, like Adrienne Kovack at the University of New Hampshire, are helping us test DNA to find out where these rabbits still exist. They are also helping us better understand the rabbit’s habitat needs and its dispersal habits. Surveys and monitoring occur across the range to understand taxonomy and genetic diversity, and to monitor habitat changes, populations and project success.
One day, we hope the New England cottontail will once again be common across its namesake!