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 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 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.

Saving the Cottontail Means Taking Action Now and in the Future

The New England cottontail's young forest habitat is ephemeral: It lasts only 10 to 20 years before it becomes older woodland, where ground-level plants are often too thin to yield enough food and cover.

Thicket habitat in springtime

New England cottontails live among thick shrubs and young trees./K. Boland

An increasing number of habitat projects help provide young forest and shrubland for cottontails. The new Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge will also preserve, create, and refresh young forest and shrubland in areas where cottontails live.

Ongoing research delivers increasing knowledge about how New England cottontails use their habitat and move about on the land. Captive breeding boosts cottontail numbers and delivers new genes to existing populations. Biologists have built breeding pens in natural habitat and started a population of cottontails on an uninhabited island in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay; resulting offspring will be released into the wild in new areas.

These Cottontails Need Thick Cover

New England cottontails need brush, shrubs, and densely growing young trees, often described by the general term young forest. In the past, natural factors created plenty of this 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

American redstart and many other birds need the young forest that conservationists create to help New England cottontails./T. Berriman

Conservation partners, including state and federal agencies, towns, land trusts, companies, and private landowners, are actively making and managing habitat to help the New England cottontail. This same habitat is essential to migrating songbirds, game birds like the American woodcock and ruffed grouse, and reptiles such as the black racer and box turtle, to name but a few.

More than 60 kinds of wildlife in the Northeast require 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 the wildlife - and to our children and grandchildren - to keep enough of this important habitat around.

You Can Help!

Visit a habitat demonstration area in your state or local area.

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 management 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 the cottontail. 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 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.