Down the rabbit hole…

The New England cottontail – New England's only native cottontail – has suffered significant declines and is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Credit: Tom Barnes/USFWS

The New England cottontail – New England’s only native cottontail – has suffered significant declines and is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Credit: Tom Barnes/USFWS

Two 11-week-old New England cottontails are scooped up by Cindy Maynard, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and loaded into her car. Born at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, these rabbits are destined for Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.

After an hour drive to the refuge, the two cottontails are released into a one-acre outdoor fenced area lush with blueberry, goldenrod, northern bayberry, and poison ivy. Here, the rabbits will grow for a few more weeks before their release on nearby Patience Island, where conservationists are working to build a new population of the species.

This is just one ongoing project to benefit the rabbit, a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The New England cottontail is New England’s only native rabbit. New Englanders may regularly see small rabbits along bike paths, in parks, and by backyard flowerbeds—but these are not New England cottontails. Rather, they are eastern cottontails, which were introduced to the region decades ago and have thrived and multiplied as fast as rabbits are rumored.

Unlike its common cousin, the New England cottontail has not fared so well over the last 50 years. Tens of thousands of acres across the region once supported the species, which seeks the security of thick, brushy shrubland and young forest habitat. Development has swallowed vast areas of the land the New England cottontail – and dozens of other wildlife species – depend on. And the remaining ideal young forests have matured, with older and taller woods that provide little shelter and food for the rabbit.

With a range that has shrunk by 86 percent since the 1960s, this once-common animal is now found in just five isolated populations across six states.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Cindy Maynard with the zoo's Director of Conservation Programs Lou Perrotti weigh one of the two male rabbits that will go to Ninigret on this trip. Credit: Meagan Racey/USFWS

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Cindy Maynard with the zoo’s Director of Conservation Programs Lou Perrotti weigh one of the two male rabbits that will go to Ninigret on this trip. Credit: Meagan Racey/USFWS

“The New England cottontail is an important part of the wildlife legacy and biodiversity of our region,” says Anthony Tur, an endangered species biologist in the of the Service’s New England Field Office in Concord, New Hampshire.

“All species have an inherent value, and all of them have a place on the landscape. If people are the reason for an animal being in trouble – and clearly we’re part of the problem the New England cottontail is facing today – then we have a moral responsibility to work hard to keep that animal around.”

Growing concern prompted state wildlife agencies in 2004 to focus efforts on the species, and two years later, the Service added the rabbit as a candidate for ESA protection. State and federal biologists developed a strategy to help the species rebound—ideally to the point where the cottontail would no longer need to be listed under the ESA.

By September 2015, the Service will decide if the species must be listed as endangered or threatened, or if the effort is enough to remove the rabbit from the list of candidate species. …Keep reading this at the Endangered Species Bulletin!

3 Comments on “Down the rabbit hole…

  1. Since Eastern Cottontails and New England Cottontails are indistinguishable from each other without a DNA test in most cases, how will Fish and Game departments handle one species being on the endangered species list and not the other in regards to hunters, pest control etc. without encouraging the proliferation of the already more common Eastern? (Eastern are very very commonly seen in many cities like Keene, Concord etc and in most Ma cities like the outskirts of Boston, Springfield etc)

    • Hi Diane! I’m sorry for the delay in getting back to you. We’ve been out for the holiday. Thanks for your patience. You ask a great question – how might we and our partners handle a look-alike species if the New England cottontail is protected under the federal Endangered Species Act? I’m afraid that we’re not there yet. We’re still in the process of deciding whether the New England cottontail should be listed under the ESA. However, if we determine that it should be listed, your question is an important one that would be in need of addressing. We’ve posted some information on the decision-making process on our New England cottontail conservation partnership website that you might be interested in: http://www.newenglandcottontail.org/faq-page#n407
      http://www.newenglandcottontail.org/conservation-strategy

      Thanks for reading the blog! Feel free to post here or email me (meagan_racey@fws.gov) if you have further questions.

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