New England Cottontails are getting some much needed help, hopefully before they completely vanish like Alice in Wonderland’s white rabbit that hopped into a hole, never to be seen again.
The cottontail, once prolific from southeastern New York to southern Maine, has lost 86 percent of its habitat since the 1960s, according to the Wildlife Management Institute. Regaining rabbit habitat won’t be easy or inexpensive. The cottontail is on state Endangered Species Lists in Maine and New Hampshire and is a candidate for the federal Endangered Species List.
State wildlife agencies from Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service, plus the Wildlife Management Institute and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation are parties in a regional conservation strategy to save the cottontail.
Millions of dollars from The Natural Resources Conservation Service and The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation are committed to the strategy’s 82 actions including goals for the number of acres of rabbit habitat to be managed in each state.
Creating and enhancing habitat where cottontails already exist appears to be critical. Last year Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife moved 15 cottontail rabbits from the Portland jetport – where they were in the way of an airport expansion – to a Kennebunkport island. All of the rabbits died after being moved.
“Our hope was we could move them to this Shangri-la island away from the jets and breed them and move on,” said a disappointed Wally Jacubus, DIF&W’s mammal group leader.
I recently visited one of the more exciting and extensive habitat projects at Cape Elizabeth’s Inn by the Sea, a collaboration between the Inn and Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands which owns the adjacent Crescent Beach State Park.
BPL wildlife biologist Joe Wiley reported recently on the project, noting that, “Ten foot wide strips approximately 1300 feet long were mowed at the edge of old field habitats at Crescent Beach. The strips are immediately adjacent to the dense shrub-scrub habitat that the cottontails prefer.
They seldom venture more than 16 feet from escape cover. Periodic mowing of the strips throughout the growing season provides succulent regrowth of the rabbit’s preferred natural foods close to dense cover.
“The Cape Elizabeth state park complex and adjacent private lands support the most state endangered New England cottontails in Maine,” said Wiley.
The Inn by the Sea – an elegant resort that borders Crescent Beach – has removed two acres of invasive, nonindigenous plant species, such as bamboo and bitter street, from state park land. It’s a tough job, requiring repeated plowing up of the ground.
“Now, we’re hand pulling the bamboo as it keeps coming up,” the Inn’s Rauni Kew told me during my visit there. Local shrubs such as raspberry, blueberry, dogwood, alder, winterberry, and dewberry have been planted.
Rauni summed up the problem nicely, noting that the cottontail, “is not a great species. They’re small and don’t turn white in the winter,” leaving them vulnerable to predation, especially from coyotes that are now common in Cape Elizabeth. “They need our help,” she said.
The good news is that biologists who collected rabbit scat identified 89 different cottontails in and around that area. And now, what Rauni calls her “rabitat” gives the bunnies a wonderful place to live – as elegant for them as the Inn by the Sea is for us!