New England Cottontail

Restoring a Rare Rabbit

New England cottontail in habitat

New England cottontails need thick habitat to survive./J. Greene

The New England cottontail lives in parts of New England and New York state. The range of this once-common rabbit has shrunk and its population has dwindled over the last 50 years, so that today this unique native mammal faces possible extinction.

The most critical threat to the cottontail is a loss of habitat – places where rabbits can find food, rear young, and escape predators. Development has taken much of the land once inhabited by cottontails and other wildlife. And thousands of acres that used to be young forest (ideal bunny habitat) have grown up into middle-aged and older woods, where cottontails don't generally live.

Today the New England cottontail is restricted to coastal southwestern Maine, southeastern New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeastern New York – less than a fifth of its historic range.

This Cottontail Needs Brush

New England cottontails need brush, shrubs, and densely growing young trees, habitats described by the general term young forest. In the past, natural factors created plenty of young forest. But today, because we don't let wildfires burn unchecked or beaver dams flood and kill trees, and because many people oppose clearcut logging, we no longer have enough of this habitat for New England cottontails and the dozens of other wild animals that need it.

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The American woodcock is one of many kinds of wildlife that also need young forest./T. Flanigan

Other Wildlife Will Benefit

People and their activities have made the landscape less hospitable to cottontails. Fortunately, we can manage the remaining acres of potential habitat to help the New England cottontail, along with birds such as the American woodcock, golden-winged warbler, brown thrasher, and indigo bunting, and reptiles like the black racer and wood turtle, to name but a few.

More than 100 kinds of wildlife in the Northeast use young forest during part or all of their life cycles. Making and renewing young forest can be time-consuming and expensive, and it needs to be an ongoing task. But we owe it to wildlife -- and to our children and grandchildren -- to keep enough of this important natural resource around.

You Can Help!

Today, the New England cottontail is being considered for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. If it is placed on the endangered species list, then federal agencies will have the primary responsibility to save this rabbit. Conservationists from all sectors -- federal, state, and private -- agree that it makes more sense, and will be far more efficient, to keep the cottontail off the endangered list in the first place. How can that be done? By making enough habitat so that the species' population rises and it's no longer in danger of going extinct.

To meet this goal, conservationists need help from landowners, businesses, and the public. Together we can save the New England cottontail, a key part of our natural heritage.

Read Saving a New England Native (pdf), an article on New England cottontail conservation from Northern Woodlands Magazine.
A Landowner's Guide to New England Cottontail Habitat Management (pdf) is a 36-page (17.8 MB) publication providing information on how to create and maintain habitat for cottontails.