Cottontails Need Young Forest
Scientific research has shown that to have a variety of wildlife, we must have a variety of habitats -- including some young, regrowing forest.
Biologists call the kind of habitat that New England cottontails need “early successional” – other names for this and several closely related habitat types include thicket, shrubland, and young forest.
In the past, wildfires, insect outbreaks, windstorms, and widespread beaver activity created an ebb and flow of thousands of acres of young forest across the land. Native Americans set fires to clear land for growing crops and to spur the growth of green vegetation that fed the animals they hunted. When Europeans arrived, they cut down forests for lumber and to open up areas for farming. Throughout the settlement period, New England cottontails continued to occupy shrubby swamps, and they thrived in logged-off areas as well as lightly grazed pastures and places where agriculture had proven unproductive and farming had ceased.
In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, many farms in New England and New York were abandoned as people moved to cities or migrated to regions where the soil was better for agriculture. Shrubs and trees sprouted in the old fields and pastures, and young forests began to reclaim the landscape. The native cottontails flourished.
Habitat Loss and Falling Populations
Two major factors have caused a sharp decline in the amount of young forest in New England and the eastern U.S. First, much of the landscape has been covered by humans' development. The second factor is a natural one: As abandoned farmland and brushy woods changed into middle-aged and older forest, they stopped being useful to many wild species, the New England cottontail included.
We now suppress the natural forces that once created big chunks of young forest. We put out fires before they sweep across the land. We prevent beavers from building dams that flood wooded areas and kill older trees. Today, many people oppose the clearcut logging that once gave rise to extensive stands of densely regrowing tree seedlings and sprouts. As a result, we now have an abundance of mature forest in the Northeast. What we lack is enough young, regrowing forest to support the many wild creatures that need this habitat.
Because of habitat loss, the range of the New England cottontail has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the 1960s, and the rabbit population has plummeted accordingly. Today the New England cottontail is considered a wildlife species of greatest conservation need throughout New England, and Maine and New Hampshire have placed it on their endangered species lists.
To help the New England cottontail, conservation partners, including state and federal agencies, towns, land trusts, companies, and private landowners, are actively making and managing habitat. 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.
Most land in the Northeast is privately owned, so landowners can help wildlife in a big way by making young forest habitat. Town select boards and conservation commissions can propose habitat projects on municipal lands, and land trusts can make young forest on holdings they manage. When considering a habitat project, consult the Contacts section of this website. You can also get advice from your state’s wildlife agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, or a consulting forester with knowledge of wildlife habitat needs. For some projects, full or partial funding may be available.
Download the non-technical Young Forest Guide to learn how to make habitat for cottontails and other wildlife. Best Management Practices for New England cottontails provide more technical habitat-creation guidelines.