Hoppy Ending: Couple Helps Write a New Chapter for the New England Cottontail
Our agency announced today that an unprecedented public-private conservation partnership has kept the New England cottontail off the endangered species list. Private landowners Rick and Donna Ambrose hosted the announcement event on their property in Dover, NH, a fitting location given the Ambrose’s role in the New England cottontail conservation effort.
Rick and Donna, along with numerous foresters, farmers, birdwatchers, biologists, hunters and conservationists, have been part of a coordinated effort aimed at conserving the New England cottontail, first classified as a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection in 2006.
Over the years, on walks through their wooded property, Rick and Donna witnessed the decline of the New England cottontail, observing the species’s slow disappearance.
The Ambroses began working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) about five years ago, participating in the Working Lands for Wildlife program, a partnership between the NRCS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rick and Donna have created and improved young forest habitat on their land to benefit New England cottontail and numerous other species, including woodcock, bobcats, snowshoe hares, a broad range of songbirds, box turtles, and frosted elfin butterflies.
Rick has also been a tremendous advocate for the NRCS effort, reaching out to friends and family in the community, encouraging them to enroll in the program. He also helps other property owners install their own habitat restoration projects by running a chainsaw and helping out with equipment from his excavation business.
These relationships have been instrumental in developing key projects with great benefit to the species.
“Rick has been a phenomenal landowner to work with,” says Matthew Larkin, Soil Conservationist with the NRCS. “He has been a huge assistance to us, not only with his work but with sharing the objective with friends and family in the area, which has led to work on other projects. He has been a real ‘go-to’ guy for the whole program.”
We spoke with Rick and Donna in advance of today’s announcement.
What motivated you to work with the New England cottontail initiative?
Rick and Donna: We were approached by a neighbor who asked us to meet with NRCS representatives about the initiative. At that time we learned that the effort would include common land that abutted our property and because we enjoy doing things to our property to improve wildlife habitat it made sense to us to participate.
Why do habitat work on your land?
Rick and Donna: We have always had an appreciation for the wildlife that abounds on our property and were approached by the NH Fish and Game shortly after we built here in 1996 to plant crab apple trees, which at the time were intended to add food support to the growing turkey population. We were astounded at the impact that just that had in attracting other wildlife and felt that the New England cottontail initiative would have similar impact.
What work has been done?
Rick and Donna: We have cleared approximately 10 acres, cleared invasive plant species, and planted shrubs to directly support the cottontail effort.
What has resulted from that work? Have you seen an increase in bird or other animal populations?
Rick and Donna: Shortly after the restoration on our land began we were contacted by the University of New Hampshire to do a songbird population study, and the variety of birds which resulted was quite impressive. We have continually made an effort to support the songbirds, but opening up the woodland area has been a meaningful improvement for them.
What else is going on at your property (landscape-wise)? What are you trying to do with portions of your property?
Rick and Donna: Our objectives have always been to maintain it in a more natural state; haying the fields, selectively cutting our firewood, and pruning the young pines to 18 feet to improve the timber stand. We had, also, cleared around old growth apple trees to improve their production. This has resulted in our being able to view deer, red and grey fox, coyote, opossum, fisher cat, and we have even found signs of bobcat.
The release happening on your property and the condo property will be the first on private land. How does that feel?
Rick and Donna: Great. It is important to recognize and act on an opportunity that will directly benefit our animal neighbors.
What support were you given?
Rick and Donna: The NRCS and Fish and Game personnel that we have interacted with are clearly dedicated to their mission. The relationship that has resulted from becoming involved has given us the opportunity to appreciate what the NRCS and other conservation groups are dedicated to doing. Their role is to ensure that not only vast forests be protected, but to find and secure space even in the more urban areas so that all species can coexist.
What to you would mean success for this work on your property?
Rick and Donna: There are obviously significant hurdles to overcome to make an effort like this successful, a good many of those obstacles being in the natural world! But the continued efforts of the NRCS, USFWS, and the conservation communities to demonstrate and convince small landowners to participate is a very important part. So, if our participation convinces other small landowners to commit to wildlife habitat restoration, then the natural effects will become evident and our participation will be purposeful.
The time and dedication of Rick and Donna Ambrose, and the numerous partners involved in the New England cottontail conservation strategy, is indeed purposeful. It will ensure that New England’s native cottontail will be with us into the future.
“Rick is a huge advocate for what we are doing,” says Don Keirstead, Resource Conservationist with the NRCS. “He has been a major boost to the program. Private landowners like Rick really make these efforts possible.”