Frequently Asked Questions
The rabbits that most people see are Eastern cottontails – a completely different species than our native New England type. Eastern cottontails were imported to the region in the twentieth century; it turns out they can live in small patches of thinner cover than what New England cottontails need.
The species has lost more than 80 percent of its habitat over the last 50 years. Some of this loss comes from people developing the landscape, and some of it comes from shrubby areas growing up into forest, where cottontails can't live.
They need places like old overgrown farms, brushy fields, coastal shrublands, thickets near beaver flowages, and stands of trees growing back after logging. In those types of thick cover, bunnies can find food, hide from predators, and shelter from winter’s cold and wind. Local populations need blocks of habitat 25 acres in size (and ideally much larger) -- plus, habitat blocks must connect to other similar patches of cover.
Darned thick! New England cottontails need masses and tangles of saplings, sprouts, vines, and shrubs. A human on foot can’t simply stroll through such places – in many cases, they won’t even be able to enter.
They live in six states east of the Hudson River: New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine. They’ve died out in Vermont. There are five population centers, kind of like little islands, currently separated from each other. Biologists are actively searching for local populations throughout the species’ historic range.
They’re clearcutting trees and cutting back shrubs so they’ll grow back thick enough to provide good rabbit habitat. They’re also using controlled fires to burn back shrubs -- which also spurs the roots of shrubs to send up dense growth. Conservationists and habitat managers are also planting native shrubs. And a captive breeding program is underway, in the hope that someday biologists will be able to reintroduce New England cottontails to areas where they’ve died out.
Different kinds of wildlife need different kinds of habitat. For instance, there’s more than enough forest in New England for the animals that need that kind of cover. What we don’t have enough of is brushy places. It doesn’t take long for brush to grow up into woods. So we need to keep renewing the habitat – usually every 10 years or so – to keep enough young forest and shrubland around so that animals like the New England cottontail remain a part of our native wildlife.
A whole bunch of them! Mammals like the bobcat, Canada lynx, snowshoe hare, and various rodents; birds like American woodcock, ruffed grouse, hermit thrush, Eastern towhee, and brown thrasher; and reptiles like box and wood turtles and the black racer (a kind of snake). Biologists estimate that more than 40 species of wildlife need this kind of habitat. And many other animals from other habitats, including the deep woods, seek out patches of young forest to find food at different times during their life cycles.
It’s one of our native creatures and has been around for millennia. The simple (well, not so simple) act of making rabbit habitat also helps dozens of other wild species. Because our development – houses, roads, malls – has destroyed many thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, we need to take an active role in preserving and creating habitat so that creatures like the New England cottontail will be around for our children and our children’s children to see and enjoy.
Your neighbors! They include private landowners and businesses, utility companies, federal and state agencies, Native American tribes, the U.S. military, towns and municipalities, land trusts, and wildlife organizations like the Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Defenders of Wildlife. More wildlife and nature lovers are signing on each month!
Absolutely! Wildlife biologists and habitat consultants are ready and able to work with landowners – whether private, corporate, or municipal – to plan ways of making habitat without causing financial hardships. There are lots of state and federal programs that can contribute funding or provide equipment for helping wildlife. (See the “Contacts” section on the far right of this website’s pages.)
The U.S. 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 cottontail habitat. CCAAs provide legal guarantees that no additional regulatory burdens will be placed on cooperating landowners should the New England cottontail formally be listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
It certainly does. Rabbits have a high reproduction rate, and populations can rebound quickly when these animals find good living conditions. The key to restoring the New England cottontail is providing the species with ample, interconnected areas of high-quality habitat. The rabbits will do the rest.