The wrong kind of rabbit is hopping all over New England while the regions only native rabbit, the New England cottontail, seems to be disappearing. Biologists at national wildlife refuges throughout the region are working to shift the balance.
Eastern cottontails were introduced in the region in the late 1800s and are nearly impossible to tell apart from the New England cottontail. Biologists fear habitat loss, combined with the abundance of eastern cottontails, might explain the alarming decline of the New England cottontaila candidate for the endangered species list since 2006.
A sharp population drop probably would propel the New England cottontail onto that list, says Anthony Tur, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services New England Field Office.
Instead, the decline has been observed over 50 years, with the New England cottontails range shrinking by 86 percent since the early 1960s, based on historical rabbitidentification data. The New England cottontail has disappeared from Vermont and is endangered in Maine and New Hampshire. Its range also includes Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York.
The rabbits decline has prompted the New England Cottontail Initiative, a recovery effort launched in 2006 that includes the Service, the Department of Agricultures Natural Resources Conservation Service, state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, tribes and nonprofit land trusts.
Refuges across New England are taking partprimarily by fostering the thick, shrublike vegetation the rabbits require for food and shelter.
Regionwide, much of the more than 1,000 acres identified for rabbit habitat under the New England Cottontail Initiative is private, says Tur. Several hundred acres of private lands, many of which adjoin refuges, are in various stages of restoration, he says.
As part of the effort, a multipartner, multistate New England cottontail captive breeding project was started last December. Four females and one male are adapting to captivity at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, says Suzanne Paton, a biologist with the Services Southern New England Coastal Program. The plan is to breed them this spring and release the young onto national wildlife refuges and other protected areas.