The New England cottontail (NEC) is the Northeast’s only native cottontail. Once common, it is presently being considered for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. Largely due to degraded and disappearing habitat, the range of this species in New England and eastern New York has been reduced by more than 85%. This rabbit is very similar in appearance to the abundant eastern cottontail, a midwestern species that was introduced to New England in the late 1800s to bolster cottontail populations.
The decline of NECs in the Northeast has been a concern of biologists, conservationists, and sportsmen for more than a decade. In 2006, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) designated NEC a Candidate for Threatened or Endangered status. State and federal biologists began organizing a regional conservation effort, and in 2011 the Regional NEC Initiative was formally established with support from state and federal agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations. A Conservation Strategy outlining specific habitat and population goals, funding sources, and planned actions has been submitted to the USFWS for review. The Service will make a listing decision by 2014 based on this Strategy and the likelihood of restoration effort success.
Habitat Requirements: New England cottontails require large patches (10-25 acres or more) of shrubland/young forest to maintain viable local populations. This type of habitat continues to decline in the region as abandoned farmland grows into mature forest or is subdivided for development. One of the best ways to create and/or enhance NEC habitat is to clearcut a patch of forest and allow it to regenerate with dense growth. Such patches are beneficial to cottontails for 15-20 years before the canopy begins to close again and the thicket becomes too sparse to offer predator protection.
Habitat Managment and Restoration: The CT DEEP Wildlife Division is currently conducting NEC habitat enhancement projects on several state properties. But, the success of the NEC Initiative will require work on private lands as well. Connecticut plays a critical role in the regional recovery effort because it supports the most significant remaining populations of the species. Twelve Focus Areas have been identified in Connecticut as having excellent potential for both habitat and population restoration. Initial restoration activities will be conducted in these areas. Through a private landowner technical assistance program, DEEP works with private landowners to develop detailed NEC habitat management plans for potential funding through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
To learn more about the NEC Initiative and opportunities for landowners, please contact the DEEP Wildlife Division Habitat Unit in Marlborough at 860-295-9523.
COTTONTAIL HEADS WANTED
The Wildlife Division is seeking the assistance of sportsmen in determining the distribution of New England cottontails in Connecticut. New England cottontails look almost identical to eastern cottontails. The most reliable way to distinguish the two species is by examining their skulls.
You can help by submitting the heads of cottontails you harvest, or roadkills you find, to the Wildlife Division.
Heads, labelled with the location they were found, can be dropped off at the Sessions Woods WMA office in Burlington or the Franklin Swamp WMA office in Franklin. You can also store heads in a plastic bag in your freezer and call 860-642-7239 to make arrangements for pick up.
Photo: Connecticut Post (top)