New England Cottontail

Restoring a Rare Rabbit

New England cottontail in summer

New England cottontails need thick habitat year-round to survive./M. Poole, USFWS

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.

Saving the Cottontail Means Taking Action Now and in the Future

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. But conservation partners, including state and federal agencies, towns, land trusts, companies, and private landowners, understand that the cottontail’s young forest habitat is ephemeral: It lasts for only 10 to 20 years before it becomes older woodland, where ground-level plants are too thin to provide rabbits with enough food and cover to survive.

Thicket habitat in springtime

You might find a New England cottontail nestled among these native shrubs at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in southern Maine./K. Boland

We’re forging ahead with efforts to create enough young forest for the New England cottontail and the many other wild creatures it lives with.

An increasing number of habitat projects will help assure that the cottontail remains on the land into the future. One ambitious regionwide effort is the proposed Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge, aimed at preserving, creating, and refreshing young forest and shrubland in some of the areas where cottontails are found.

Captive breeding is another technique to make sure enough rabbits are around to fill the available habitat. Using animals captured from stable populations in the wild, Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island and Queens Zoo in New York have bred and released more than 100 rabbits in the past five years, bringing new genes to existing cottontail populations and helping found populations in unoccupied areas. Conservationists have also built large breeding pens in natural habitat, so that resulting offspring can be released in new places.

Rick Jacobson is director of wildlife for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and chair of the executive committee of the New England Cottontail Initiative. “Our work is far from done," he says. “But if the initiative can keep meeting its goals for habitat protection, I am very confident that we will achieve fully self-sustaining populations."

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

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 professional forester to learn more. For some projects, full or partial funding may be available.

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.