New England Cottontail

Restoring a Rare Rabbit

New England cottontail in habitat

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

The New England cottontail lives in parts of New England and New York state. Over the last 50 years the range of this once-common rabbit has shrunk and its population has dwindled so that today it needs our help to survive.

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

Today the New England cottontail is restricted to southern Maine, southern New Hampshire, and parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York east of the Hudson River - less than a fifth of its range in the early 1900s.

Conservation Actions Keep Cottontail Off Endangered List
New England cottontail released in New Hampshire

Captive-bred rabbit released in habitat./C. Fergus

Good news! In September 2015 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the New England cottontail need not be declared threatened or endangered at this time. Ongoing conservation efforts by a wide range of partners, including state and federal agencies, towns, land trusts, companies, and private landowners, are helping this native cottontail bounce back – and providing homes for many other wild animals that share its habitat. The Service based its decision not on an evaluation indicating that the habitat and population goals identified in the Conservation Strategy had been reached, but rather on the commitment of the partners involved to continue the effort into the future so that the goals will be met. For more information, visit the Service’s New England cottontail webpage.

This Cottontail Needs Thick Cover

New England cottontails need brush, shrubs, thickets, and densely growing young trees, often described by the general term young forest. In the past, natural factors created plenty of this type of habitat. But today, because we don't let wildfires burn unchecked or beaver dams flood and kill trees, and because some people oppose timber harvests, we no longer have enough thick, vigorously regrowing young vegetation for New England cottontails and the dozens of other wild animals that live in such settings.

American redstarts need young forest habitat

The American redstart and many other birds need the young forest habitat that conservationists are creating to help New England cottontails./T. Berriman

Other Wildlife Also Benefit

Partners are actively making and managing habitat to help the New England cottontail. This same habitat helps birds such as the American woodcock, blue-winged warbler, brown thrasher, and indigo bunting, and reptiles like the black racer and box 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. We owe it to wildlife - and to our children and grandchildren - to keep enough of this important natural resource around.

You Can Help!

Become a well-informed advocate for New England's native rabbit by exploring this website to learn how conservationists are helping the New England cottontail. Support habitat projects on public and private lands - projects that yield jobs, revenue, and sustainable, locally produced timber products along with more and better opportunities for birdwatching, hunting, and viewing wildlife. Learn about the Conservation Strategy that guides efforts to help New England's native rabbit. And check out recent progress made toward achieving the strategy's goals.

Most land in the Northeast is privately owned, so landowners can help wildlife in a big way by signing up to make habitat. Town select boards and conservation commissions can propose projects on municipal lands, and land trusts can make young forest on holdings they manage. Contact your state’s wildlife agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, or a certified forester to learn more. For some projects, full or partial funding may be available.

It's heartening that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife decided that the New England cottontail doesn't need to be classified as threatened or endangered at present. But conservationists know they can't sit back and do nothing. Young forest is an ephemeral habitat, often lasting less than 20 years. We must work together to keep making this special habitat across the cottontail's range now and in the future.

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 on how to create and maintain habitat for cottontails. Regional wildlife biologists have also developed a 28-page (4.96 MB) guide, Best Management Practices: How to Make and Manage Habitat for the New England Cottontail.