Down the rabbit hole…
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.
“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!