The wrong kind of rabbit is hopping all over New England while the region’s 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 cottontail—a 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 Service’s New England Field Office.

Instead, the decline has been observed over 50 years, with the New England cottontail’s range shrinking by 86 percent since the early 1960s, based on historical rabbit–identification 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 rabbit’s decline has prompted the New England Cottontail Initiative, a recovery effort launched in 2006 that includes the Service, the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, tribes and nonprofit land trusts.

Refuges across New England are taking part—primarily by fostering the thick, shrub–like vegetation the rabbits require for food and shelter.

  • Since 2005, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine has been creating two small on–refuge habitats and working with partners on larger landscapes, says refuge biologist Kate O’Brien. Kelly Boland, an Environmental Defense Fund contractor stationed at the refuge, works full time with landowners and other partners to create rabbit habitat. Boland is helping to manage about 350 acres of private land for the benefit of New England cottontails, O’Brien says.

  • At Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, biologists began a shrub–land restoration project in 2009 and are working with the town of Charlestown to manage habitat near the refuge, says complex biologist Dorie Stolley.

  • The Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex began monitoring efforts in 2006. Working with partners, the refuge complex is trapping and tracking both eastern and New England cottontails. “We are hoping to track the rabbits to see if there is a difference in their movement patterns and habitat use during the winter and breeding season,” says biologist Eileen McGourty. “If we know the New England cottontails are using a certain habitat, we can work to protect these areas and create similar habitat to support these populations.”

Region–wide, 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 multi–partner, multi–state 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 Service’s 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.

Other steps being considered include:

  • Relocating eastern cottontails, and thus giving New England cottontails less competition for habitat. Biologists believe the eastern is thriving because of its ability to use a wider variety of habitats and to venture into open spaces, Paton says. Biologists are not certain what impact, if any, the eastern’s presence has on the New England cottontail.

  • Creating a haven for the New England cottontails, free of easterns and mammalian predators—perhaps at Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge, MA, near Martha’s Vineyard. Literature reviews and assessments of vegetation and other island species are underway to determine suitability.

Jennifer Anderson is a regular contributor to Refuge Update.