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US Fish & Wildlife Service - Journal Entry

New England Cottontail Surveys on Ten National Wildlife Refuges in the Northeast

Region 0, September 30, 2006

New England cottontail were once fairly widespread in New England, but due to urbanization and loss of early successional habitat, they are now only found in isolated patches of habitat in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. In addition to being a state listed endangered species in some of these states, the New England cottontail was recently listed as a candidate species for listing as endangered or threatened by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A number of national wildlife refuges in the northeast United States have confirmed or suspected populations of New England cottontail, but more detailed information of presence/absence is needed to accurately identify high priority areas for habitat protection and management.

In winter 2005-2006, biological staff from Rachel Carson, Stewart B. McKinney , Parker River, Rhode Island Complex and Eastern Massachusetts Complex National Wildlife Refuges collaborated on a project to survey New England cottontail on ten different refuges in the northeast region. Grant funding was received through a Challenge Cost Share Project. With the help of other Service offices, numerous partnerships and many volunteers, refuge biologists were able to survey significant amounts of land and collected samples (pellets, tissue, blood) both on and off refuge land for analysis. Samples were analyzed at the University of New Hampshire. Additional areas will be sampled in FY07 with remaining Challenge Cost Share Project funds. The survey information will be extremely useful in developing habitat restoration strategies and work to control non-native invasive shrubs. A brief synopsis of activities and findings at each refuge are below.

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Maine: From previous research conducted by Dr. John Litvaitis at the University of New Hampshire in 2003, refuge staff documented five sites on Rachel Carson refuge with New England cottontail. Based upon additional winter tracking surveys during 2005, at least 3-5 additional pockets of occupied habitat on refuge land were suspected. As part of this joint project, pellets were submitted from areas where there were unsubstantiated reports of New England cottontail and where winter track surveys were not conclusive. Two of these sites were determined to contain snowshoe hare populations. In Maine, eastern cottontail has not been documented within the State, so if winter tracking conditions permit, refuge staff can measure tracks instead of submitting pellets for DNA analysis. However, frequently winter tracking conditions are not ideal. Pellets were also submitted from adjacent land, the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. Several areas within the reserve were confirmed to be occupied by New England cottontail and refuge staff are currently partnering with them to create a management plan to provide over 60 acres of New England cottontail habitat. For more information please contact Kate O'Brien at (207) 646-9226

Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, Connecticut: Refuge staff partnered with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (CT DEP) to survey the Salt Meadow unit of Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Surveys were completed through pellet collection and trapping. Six pellet samples were collected in February on over two acres of habitat dominated by shrubs and invasive vines. All pellet samples were confirmed to be eastern cottontail through DNA analysis. In addition, the CT DEP trapped seven eastern cottontails (total of 194 calculated trap nights) on 12 acres of early successional fields at the Salt Meadow unit. Although neither method of sampling revealed New England cottontail presence, the regional status report prepared by Litvaitis and Tash (2006) recorded New England cottontail only 20 miles north of the refuge in East Haddam, CT. Through habitat enhancement on the refuge and corridor management with adjacent landowners, the Salt Meadow unit of Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge may support New England cottontail in the future. For more information please contact Sara Williams at (860) 399-2513.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge: In January and February surveys were conducted throughout the 6-mile Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and Sandy Point State Reservation at the south end of the refuge. Refuge staff and ecological services staff found very suitable habitat (maritime shrub with very thick understory) during their searches. Pellets were only collected from likely New England cottontail habitat (thick understory). However, analysis of six pellet samples collected from three different areas confirmed only eastern cottontail presence. There is no confirmed presence of New England cottontail in northeast Massachusetts. Based on surveys from 2006, Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is not likely to have an extant population of New England cottontail. However, with its large contiguous track of quality habitat, Parker River may serve as a reintroduction site in the future. For more information please contact Nancy Pau at (978) 465-5753.

Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex: Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex initiated an inventory for New England cottontail on six parcels within four refuges in coastal Rhode Island. Partnering with Tom Husband's Biometrics class at the University of Rhode Island, refuge staff trained 16 students to search for cottontail browse and locate tracks in fresh snow. Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management biologist Brian Tefft, also trained students in trapping techniques and assisted the refuge in surveying. Students contributed over 282 hours to the project, with a total of 23 pellet samples collected and six cottontails captured. Although most samples were eastern cottontail, refuge staff have confirmed the presence of New England cottontail on Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge and have seven of eight samples from Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge exhibiting an unusual signature, and being subject to additional testing. With over 1000 acres of coastal shrub and early successional habitats to search, refuge staff plan to continue this successful partnership in future years to determine whether any additional remnant populations of New England cottontails exist on refuge lands. For more information please contact Suzanne Paton at (401) 364-9124.

Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex: Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex initiated inventories for New England cottontails and potential habitat within three refuges in central and southeastern Massachusetts. At Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge, refuge staff, ecological services staff, Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve staff, and volunteers searched several areas for evidence of New England cottontail in February and March. Pellets were collected from four different sites in March, and one of these samples was identified as New England cottontail. Although New England cottontail are known to exist on adjacent land, this is the first confirmed evidence of presence on the refuge. Additional areas will be sampled during this coming winter. Refuge and ecological services staff also scouted Massasoit refuge in February for New England cottontail habitat but no suitable sites were found and no evidence of New England cottontail presence was found. Refuge staff also scouted numerous areas of Oxbow refuge in February and found several areas of potential habitat. These areas, and perhaps others at Oxbow refuge, will also be sampled during this coming winter. For more information please contact Eileen McGourty or Stephanie Koch at (978) 443-4661.






Contact Info: Kevin Painter, , kevin_painter@fws.gov