BY JEFF MURRAY, NY OUTDOOR NEWS
Benny Caiola is a real estate developer, but for the next several years, he’s going to be developing some of his land with a different goal in mind — restoration of the New England cottontail rabbit.
If you see rabbits sneaking into your garden or running ahead of your beagles, you are most likely watching the eastern cottontail.
But the eastern variety is actually an import, introduced into New York decades ago to replace a once-populous native, the New England cottontail. Now state and federal wildlife officials are launching a project to restore the New England cottontail to much of its original range, and Caiola and other landowners will be on the front lines of the effort.
Caiola, who lives in Larchmont, Westchester County, owns 300 acres in Patterson, in Putnam County, that adjoins about 1,000 acres of state land. The land is primarily forest that had been logged at some time in the past.
“Doug Ramey from East-West Forestry Associates, whom I’ve used in the past, had reached out to me about a habitat project that was taking place on the adjoining state property,” Caiola said. “He explained to me that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was conducting this work and that there was possibly some grant money that was available if I was interested. I told him that I was and he proceeded to set up a meeting with Ted Kendziora from U.S. Fish and Wildlife as well as Doug Little from the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“(Kendziora) explained to me that this type of habitat restoration additionally benefits approximately 40-plus species, like turkey and deer,” he said. “It was pretty much a no-brainer for me.”
The New England cottontail has inhabited parts of New York and New England for thousands of years, but habitat destruction has greatly reduced the numbers and range of the native bunny.
The eastern cottontail, which to the untrained eye is almost identical to its New England cousin, was introduced to the region in the early 20th Century, and flourished. Despite their similar appearance, the eastern cottontail was better able to adjust to shrinking habitat than its native counterpart, said Meagan Racey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist.
“Biologists believe that their larger eyes and sharper vision lets eastern cottontails venture farther from protective cover while remaining able to spot and evade predators. Eastern cottontails seem better able to survive in the fragmented habitats of southern New England, including open fields, forest edges, small thickets, and even golf courses and suburban lawns,” Racey said. “In many smaller habitat patches, eastern cottontails have replaced New England cottontails. They may simply be able to survive in habitats that New England cottontails cannot use, and they may be better able to find and occupy new habitats as they become available.”
The goal of the project is to recreate large tracts of the type of habitat conducive to survival of the New England cottontail rabbit.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering with state wildlife agencies in several Northeastern states, including New York.
In the Empire State, DEC is working with its federal counterparts to create about 10,000 acres of suitable young forest habitat across parts of Dutchess, Columbia, Putnam and Westchester counties that can sustain more than 28,000 New England cottontails by 2030.
Currently, there are only pockets of the native rabbits east of the Hudson River.
“The habitat conditions the New England cottontail needs are also needed by many other species of wildlife,” said DEC chief wildlife biologist Gordon Batcheller. “There are 100 different species that require young forest or brush land. Bog turtles, whippoorwills, ruffed grouse — all need young forest. So if we create habitat for New England cottontails, we’ll benefit whole other species.
“It’s a core mission of ours to protect these species and ensure they continue into the future as a native New Yorker,” Batcheller said. “Managing for young forests is long term commitment. It needs to become part of who we are and what we do in our own lands. We’re looking to establish long term management in perpetuity. Going forward, this will be standard operating procedure in the Northeast.”
For more information, go to newenglandcottontail.org.