New England Cottontail

Restoring a Rare Rabbit

New England cottontail in summer

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

The New England cottontail lives in parts of New England and New York. Over the last 50 years the range of this once-common rabbit has shrunk and its population has dwindled. Today, biologists believe there are no more than 13,000 New England cottontails in the region.

A critical threat is the loss of habitat – places where rabbits can find food, raise their 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 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 historic range.

Do you own or manage forestland in a New England cottontail focus area? Check out these Best Management Practices for the New England Cottontail: How to Create, Enhance and Maintain Habitat. Other wildlife need young forest, too. This Young Forest Guide explains how to make this important habitat.

Potential Virus Threat

Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2) has shown up in 2020 in western North America. This deadly foreign virus can sicken rabbits, hares, and pikas. (Other unrelated animals and people are not believed to be susceptible.)

RHDV2 has killed wild jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits in six western states. The virus lasts a long time in the environment. It can be spread by insects, food and water, contact with sick or dead animals, and the droppings of predators or scavengers that have eaten infected rabbits. People can spread it accidentally.

Biologists working to restore the New England cottontail are monitoring the health of wild rabbits and the small number of cottontails housed in zoos and used in captive breeding, whose offspring are periodically released into the wild to bolster local populations.

What you can do to help protect New England's native rabbit from RHDV2:

  • Never turn a pet rabbit loose in the wild.
  • If you find multiple dead rabbits in nature, contact your state’s representative to the New England Cottontail Technical Committee or your state wildlife agency (click here).
  • Hunters and trappers should avoid taking rabbits that appear sick. They should wear disposable gloves when handling game, double-bag carcasses and other remains and put them in the trash, and thoroughly clean knives and other equipment.

This fact sheet has more information.

This information document provides greater detail.

This news article from Tufts University presents an overview.

Saving the Cottontail Means Taking Action Now and in the Future

The New England cottontail's preferred thick habitat may last only 10 to 20 years before it thins out and no longer offers high-quality food and hiding cover.

Many habitat projects are creating young forest and shrubland for cottontails. The new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will preserve, create, and refresh young forest and shrubland in areas where cottontails live.

Ongoing research improves our knowledge about New England cottontails and how they use their habitats. A captive breeding program boosts cottontail numbers and delivers fresh genes to wild populations. Conservationists have established a population of cottontails on an uninhabited island in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay; biologists have released resulting offspring in different parts of the species' range.

You Can Help!

Explore this website to learn how conservationists are helping the New England cottontail. Support habitat projects that yield jobs, revenue, and sustainable, locally produced timber products along with more and better opportunities for birdwatching, hunting, and viewing wildlife.

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 their holdings. Contact a natural resource professional to learn more. You can also get advice from your state’s wildlife agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, or a certified forester with knowledge of wildlife habitat needs. 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.