Conservation Actions Keep Cottontail Off Endangered Species List
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), including deciding which of our country’s animals and plants require the law’s protection. From 2006 until 2015, the Service classified the New England cottontail as a candidate species for ESA protection. In September 2015, the Service removed the cottontail as a candidate species, determining that, as a result of conservation actions, the species no longer meets the definition of threatened or endangered.
In making this important decision, the Service evaluated threats to the New England cottontail and its population by asking questions: What is the species’ population trend, and where does the New England cottontail occur? Is important habitat being lost or changing so that it’s no longer useful? Is hunting harming the population? Are diseases, predators, or competition with other wildlife imperiling the rabbit’s continued existence? Are the past, ongoing, and planned conservation actions addressing the effects of those threats to the species?
Those conservation actions are described in the New England Cottontail Conservation Strategy developed through a partnership with state, federal, and private conservationists. The actions include creating and maintaining the young forest and shrubland that New England cottontails need to survive. The partnership has a proven track record for implementing the strategy and its specific actions throughout the species’ range, and has clearly demonstrated that those actions will continue. Thus, the Service determined in September 2015 that the species can be recovered without the formal protection of the Endangered Species Act.
In 2012, a Conservation Strategy for the New England Cottontail laid out actions to address threats to the cottontail and explained how conservation partners have begun carrying out those actions to help the species. The 2015 New England Cottontail Performance Report provides updated information.
Scientists have developed computer models that integrate satellite data on different habitats with land-ownership patterns to identify specific locations where New England cottontail restoration is most likely to succeed. They have delineated focus areas where habitat restoration is likely to help cottontails the most. Researchers use DNA analysis of rabbit droppings and radio-telemetric monitoring to learn where New England cottontails live, how they move across the land, and how they interact with other wildlife. A captive breeding program is producing cottontails that have been reintroduced into areas of new, vacant, and improved habitat.
The New England Cottontail Technical Committee – a group of biologists from all six states within the species’ range, as well as professionals with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service – identified habitat and population goals for the species. The Technical Committee believes that 27,000 acres capable of supporting 13,500 New England cottontails will ensure the survival of the species into the future.
Forging a Future for the Cottontail
One thing is certain: Conservationists will continue working hard to make sure this rabbit remains among our region’s native wildlife. Fortunately, New England cottontails have a high reproductive rate and, if provided with good habitat, have the potential to rebound.
In states where the New England cottontail is considered endangered, the Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies can draw up Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances, or CCAAs, that let private landowners use their land and gain income from it while voluntarily creating habitat. CCAAs provide legal guarantees that no additional regulatory burdens will be placed on cooperating landowners should the New England cottontail ever be listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
New England cottontails inhabit many important natural places, including shrub swamps, floodplains, pine barrens, and coastal scrubland. Safeguarding – and, in some cases, managing – those habitats enriches humans’ experience of nature while preserving crucial functions such as protecting our communities against damages from floods, hurricanes, and wildfires; filtering and storing groundwater; and promoting biodiversity. These special habitats support a vast array of wildlife, including migrating birds, rare plants and insects, reptiles and amphibians, and abundant game animals. When we work to conserve the New England cottontail, we help save some of New England’s and New York’s best remaining natural landscapes.