Science-Based Strategy Directs Conservation
Conservationists have long known that the New England cottontail’s population has been falling and its range contracting as young forest and shrubland habitats have dwindled. From 2009 through 2015, states, federal agencies, and private sources have spent or committed more than $32 million to help reverse that trend. (Habitat created for New England cottontails during that period has also helped dozens of other kinds of wildlife, both rare and common.) Conservation efforts on behalf of the cottontail have been neither piecemeal nor random: They’re part of a carefully thought out plan founded on science and collaboration.
In 2012, a Conservation Strategy for the New England Cottontail laid out actions to address threats to the cottontail and explained how conservation partners have begun implementing those actions to help the species. The Strategy is based on the adaptive management concept, which means that it can and will be changed as scientists learn new facts about New England cottontails and as new threats emerge or as old threats diminish. The key to carrying out the Strategy lies in ensuring that the right conservation actions are applied in the right places to successfully recover the species.
As explained in the Strategy, scientists have developed computer models that integrate satellite data on different habitats with land-ownership patterns to identify specific locations where New England cottontail restoration is most likely to succeed. They have delineated focus areas where habitat restoration is likely to help cottontails the most. Researchers use the latest scientific techniques – including DNA analysis of rabbit droppings and radio-telemetric monitoring of individual animals – to learn where New England cottontails live, how they move across the land, and how they interact with other wildlife. A captive breeding program at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, is producing cottontails that have been reintroduced into areas of new, vacant, and improved habitat.
The New England Cottontail Technical Committee – a group of biologists from all six states within the species’ range, as well as professionals with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service – identified habitat and population goals for the species. The Technical Committee believes that 27,000 acres capable of supporting 13,500 New England cottontails will ensure the survival of the species into the future. Progress toward that goal is described in the 2015 New England Cottontail Performance Report.