Frequently Asked Questions
The rabbits that most people see are eastern cottontails, a different species than the native New England cottontail. Eastern cottontails were imported to the region in the twentieth century; it turns out they can live in smaller and thinner patches of cover than what New England cottontails need, so now they're more common in the six states where New England cottontails are found.
The New England cottontail has lost more than 80 percent of its habitat over the last 50 years, as people have developed the landscape and as areas of shrubs and young trees (prime rabbit habitat) have grown up to become mature woods that don't offer enough ground-level vegetation for cottontails to find food and hide from predators.
They live in parts of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine, and in New York east of the Hudson River. In carrying out the New England Cottontail Conservation Strategy, biologists with state and federal agencies are concentrating habitat-creation efforts on 31 population focus areas to help this rare regional rabbit.
It’s a native creature that's been around for thousands of years. Making habitat for the New England cottontail helps dozens of other kinds of wildlife that need the same kind of young forest and shrubland habitat. Because our developments – houses, roads, malls – have made many thousands of acres uninhabitable by wildlife, we need to actively preserve and create habitat so that creatures like the New England cottontail will be around for our children and our children’s children to enjoy.
They live in old overgrown fields, shrub swamps, and areas of young forest: small young trees growing back thickly following disturbances caused by windstorms, fires, or timber harvests. In such dense cover, cottontails find food, hide from predators, and shelter from winter's cold. Local New England cottontail populations do best in patches of habitat 25 acres and larger that connect to other similar blocks of cover; smaller habitat patches can also help. For a non-technical guide to creating young forest, consult the Young Forest Guide published by the Wildlife Management Institute.
Really thick! New England cottontails live among masses and tangles of sprouts, vines, shrubs, brambles, and tree saplings and seedlings. Humans on foot find it hard to stroll through such dense cover – in many cases, they won’t even want to enter.
Habitat managers harvest trees and cut back older shrubs so that vegetation grows back thickly enough to provide adequate food and hiding cover. Controlled burns spur the root systems of shrubs and other plants to send up new dense growth that cottontails need. Two regional zoos use captive breeding to produce New England cottontails that biologists can reintroduce into areas where the rabbits have vanished or where good habitat exists but no rabbits currently live. A science-based Conservation Strategy guides these efforts, and yearly performance reports document progress toward achieving habitat and population goals.
In 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge. The New England cottontail is just one of the many species that will be helped by this refuge, which will consist of separate areas of young forest and shrubland habitat that will be leased or purchased (from willing sellers only), managed, and preserved in areas where New England cottontails live.
Biologists estimate that around 16,690 New England cottontails exist across the species’ range as of 2016. Of these, about 10,500 live in priority focus areas for the species’ restoration, which means the New England cottontail restoration effort is about three-quarters of the way to achieving its goal of having 13,500 cottontails in those focus areas by the year 2030. More than 18,000 acres of suitable young forest and shrubland habitat now exist or will soon be created in focus areas, bringing the restoration effort within range of the 2030 goal of 27,000 acres of top-quality habitat in the focus areas, as stated in the Conservation Strategy.
Funding comes from many sources, including state agencies, private landowners, municipalities, zoos, land trusts, Native American tribes, nonprofit organizations, the U.S. Department of Defense, and others. The list of contributors is long, but a few sources have given substantial sums that have been crucial to New England cottontail conservation.
Wildlife Restoration funds, disbursed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, come from excise taxes on sporting equipment, including firearms and ammunition; state wildlife agencies apply for Wildlife Restoration grants to conduct projects that restore and manage populations of wild birds and mammals such as the New England cottontail. State Wildlife Grants further support conservation actions benefiting wildlife that states have identified as "species of greatest conservation need," a category in which the six states with New England cottontails have placed this native rabbit.
State wildlife agencies use a combination of Wildlife Restoration and State Wildlife Grant monies to create and manage cottontail habitat; conduct genetics analyses; carry out population and range sampling; develop databases; provide technical assistance to private landowners who want to make habitat; undertake communications and outreach efforts; administer the New England Cottontail Conservation Strategy; and document the results of conservation actions.
Other important funding comes from the states where New England cottontails are found; the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Wildlife; and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Different kinds of wildlife require different types of habitat. There’s plenty of mature forest in New England and the Northeast for the animals that need that kind of cover. But there's not enough of the thick, brushy young forest and shrubland that New England cottontails need. Young forest and shrubland are short-lived habitats, lasting only 10 to 20 years before they get too old and important ground vegetation gets too thin. For that reason, we need to keep creating and renewing young forest and shrubland so there's enough habitat to support healthy populations of New England cottontails and more than 60 other kinds of wildlife that require such dense cover.
Mammals like bobcats and snowshoe hares, plus many rodents; birds like American woodcock, ruffed grouse, indigo buntings, eastern towhees, and brown thrashers; and reptiles like box turtles, wood turtles, and green snakes. More than 60 species of wildlife that need this kind of habitat have shown population declines in recent years. Many other more-common animals that usually live in other habitats, including mature forest, also seek out young forest and shrubland to find food or shelter during different seasons or stages of their lives.
In general, rabbit populations can withstand constant pressure from predation. However, research has shown that in areas where natural habitats have been fragmented, with much land cleared and developed and with widespread “edge” areas between forests and fields, predators can imperil local cottontails.
Studies show that New England cottontails are more likely to survive through winter in habitat patches 25 acres and larger. In extensive areas of good cover, cottontails can more easily escape predators, plus they don’t need to move around as much and expose themselves to predation when seeking food, finding mates, or raising young. New England cottontails are not well-suited to avoiding predators out in the open, so conservationists are working to create bigger and more numerous patches of thick cover. In areas where cottontails are abundant and reproduce freely, they represent an important renewable food source for predators such as bobcats, coyotes, foxes, hawks, and owls.
A broad range of partners are working together to help the New England cottontail. They include private landowners, local businesses, utility companies, federal and state agencies, Native American tribes, the U.S. military, towns and municipalities, land trusts, and wildlife organizations like Audubon, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife. Many new partners have signed on to help the New England cottontail as people have become more aware of the rabbit's situation.
Yes. Biologists and habitat consultants are ready and able to work with landowners – private, corporate, or municipal – to plan ways of creating much-needed habitat without causing financial hardships. State and federal programs can contribute funding and provide equipment for habitat projects. (See the Contacts section of this website to find out more.)
Rabbits have a high reproduction rate, and populations can rebound quickly when cottontails find good living conditions. The key to restoring the New England cottontail is to provide enough interconnected areas of high-quality habitat, now and in the future.
If you are a landowner living in a region that supports New England cottontails, you may want to make habitat for these rabbits. Consult this website. Learn about other wildlife that need young forest. For a non-technical guide to creating young forest, download the Young Forest Guide published by the Wildlife Management Institute. Here are some contacts who can give you free advice on how to plan for and create habitat for New England cottontails.