By Dr. Becker
The New England cottontail rabbit is the only rabbit native to New England and was the inspiration for the children's book "The Adventures of Peter Cottontail."
Its appearance — a mottled grey, brown and white — is virtually identical to the Eastern cottontail rabbit, which is why, if you live on the East Coast, you might have mixed the two up.
While the Eastern cottontail maintains a prolific presence in New England due to its ability to thrive in various habitats (even on lawns), this hasn't always been the case for the New England cottontail.
The species, which lives primarily in thickets, small bushes and brush in the region spanning from New York to Maine, has been largely wiped out in recent decades.
Loss of Habitat Almost Wiped Out the New England Cottontail From New England
In the last 50 years, an explosion of development eliminated much of the New England cottontail's native habitat. As a result, their range was reduced by about 86 percent, leading to just five smaller populations spread across New England and eastern New York.1
As habitat disappeared due to development, young forests, which represent another one of the New England cottontail's favorite homes, matured into older woods that no longer provided the ground-level shelter and food that the cottontails depended on. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS):2
"The maturing of forest and corresponding loss of habitat is the greatest threat to the New England cottontail. As forests mature, trees and shrubs die out, and the more open forest understory becomes unsuitable for this rabbit.
As this maturation and suburban development happens on a larger scale, the remaining small, isolated patches of suitable habitat will not sustain cottontail populations over time.
The habitat loss is also true for the more than 60 other kinds of wildlife that depend on young forest, including woodcock, a broad range of songbirds, ruffed grouse, bobcats, snowshoe hares, box turtles and frosted elfin butterflies."
In 2006, with numbers of New England cottontails plummeting, the species was placed on the Endangered Species list, and in 2008 efforts were undertaken to bring back some of its habitat. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS):3
"A strong partnership of state and federal biologists, private landowners, tribes, foresters, hunters, conservation organizations and others began implementing science-based conservation actions that have halted the decline and allowed the rabbit to rebound."
A 27,000-Acre Goal by 2030
The area efforts have paid off. There now exists more than 18,000 acres of young forest, bringing the partners closer to their goal of creating 27,000 acres of habitat for the New England cottontails by 2030.
Ironically, tree clearing is beneficial for this species. In 2008, when trees were cleared to make way for a Stonyfield Yogurt plant in New Hampshire, it resulted in a "many-fold" increase in the rabbits.
Controlled burns that foster young forest growth have also been conducted while shrubs have been planted and cottontail burrows created.
For the first time in history, New England cottontails were also bred and raised in captivity as part of a captive breeding and release program. More than 130 rabbits have been bred and raised so far.
New England Cottontails Removed From Endangered Species List
As of September 2015, there were an estimated 10,500 New England cottontails living in New England — three-quarters of the way to the partners' goal of 13,500 rabbits by 2030.
The conservation efforts have been so successful that the species no longer meets the definition of threatened or endangered, so they have been removed from the Endangered Species list. Wendi Weber, Northeast Regional Director for FWS, noted that efforts will continue to make sure the species thrives:4
"Our work is not finished … We and our partners are committed to seeing this initiative through. We're still seeking help from landowners willing to make and maintain young forest and shrubland habitat. In most places, this type of habitat will depend on our careful and ongoing management."
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell continued:5
"Thanks to the dedication of many partners, we can now say that future generations of Americans will know the cottontail — and not just through a character in children's literature …
This is a great Endangered Species Act success story of how proactive conservation across a landscape can benefit not only the cottontail, but other wildlife, and people who rely on healthy New England forests."
Want More Endangered Species Success Stories? Here's How You Can Help
If you'd like to make a difference in your area, The Endangered Species Coalition recommends the following steps to protect endangered species in your area:6
Learn about endangered species. The first step to protecting them is to learn about them and why they're so important. Visit or volunteer at a national wildlife refuge or park. By supporting these areas, you help protect the habitat endangered species need to survive. Make your home wildlife friendly.You can put decals on your windows to decrease bird collisions, reduce your use of water so nearby animals have more to live off of, disinfect birdbaths to prevent disease transmission, create brush piles for habitat and eliminate your use of toxic herbicides and pesticides. Slow down when driving. Roads present a constant hazard to wildlife attempting to cross.
Slow down and keep a lookout for wildlife when you're on the road.
Recycle and buy sustainable products. Avoid wood from rainforests, minimize your use of palm oil (many forests are being cleared to plant palm plantations), and choose sustainable bamboo or wood from the Forest Stewardship Council, which protects forest species. Boycott products from threatened or endangered species. Tortoise-shell, ivory, and coral are just a few examples of products made from species nearing extinction.
Also avoid fur from endangered species, medicinal products from rhinos, tigers and black bears, crocodile skin, and live wildlife trade (including parrots, macaws, cockatoos, and finches, certain snakes, turtles, and lizards and monkeys or apes).
Leave wildlife alone. Shooting, trapping, or forcing an endangered animal into captivity is illegal. Don't participate in these activities and report any such sightings to state or federal wildlife officials.