Helping Maine's Native Cottontail
Described as plentiful in southern Maine in the mid-1900s, today the New England cottontail holds on in less than 15 percent of its former range in the state. Forests have matured, and now interlocking tree canopies shade out the 5- to 15-foot-tall thickets that once provided rabbits with abundant hiding spots and food during Maine’s long winters.
Areas around Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough, Eliot and the Berwicks, Kittery and Wells and a few other locations have New England cottontails, and conservationists continue to search for populations in those areas. So far, the non-native eastern cottontail has not been found in Maine, even though this introduced rabbit is present in the five other states that have New England cottontails.
Because of the dramatic range contraction and low number of rabbits remaining in Maine (probably fewer than 300), the New England cottontail was placed on the state endangered species list in 2007. At that time, the State of Maine, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, and representatives of towns and conservation organizations formed a partnership called the Maine New England Cottontail Working Group. The group drew up a plan for the species’ recovery, focusing on creating large patches of habitat within dispersal distance of existing populations.
A few years later, Maine’s New England cottontail focus areas were modified and merged with the rangewide Conservation Strategy for the New England Cottontail. In the Conservation Strategy, a habitat restoration goal was set for each of Maine’s focus areas. Collectively, the goal is to restore or secure over 5,000 acres of New England cottontail habitat in Maine by 2030. The six focus areas in the state are positioned around current populations and in areas where cottontails were found in recent years.
The earliest New England cottontail habitat restoration projects took place in the early to mid 2000s on the Wells Reserve, on Sprague Corporation land, at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, and at York Land Trust’s Highland Farm Preserve. Conservationists harvested trees, brush-hogged and hydro-axed older and non-productive shrub areas, planted seedlings of native trees and shrubs, and sought to control invasive plants in an effort to create and maintain the dense thicket habitats in which cottontails thrive. Since then, both public and private landowners have begun dozens of habitat projects.
Because cover takes time to grow and develop to a height and density that will sustain cottontails, some managed sites are still waiting for the first rabbits to show up; at other sites, such as Libby Field and Kelly Field in Scarborough, rabbits have already come back. Conservationists note that the young forest and shrubland habitat created for New England cottontails is also providing important benefits for more than 60 other species.
This news article details some recent developments in New England cottontail conservation in Maine.
In the heavily developed southern Maine landscape, a dearth of habitat and a lack of connectivity between habitat patches continue to challenge conservationists working to boost the New England cottontail population. University of New Hampshire researchers Adrienne Kovach and Lindsey Fenderson determined that utility rights-of-way and road edges often act as travel corridors for the rabbits. On the other hand, large roads can block cottontail dispersal.
Conservationists believe that culverts and underpasses beneath large, heavily traveled roadways may help rabbits overcome those barriers. Today the Maine New England Cottontail Working Group is working with utilities and transportation departments to enhance and expand the cover along utility corridors and select roadsides to improve them as habitat for cottontails and other wildlife. The Working Group hopes that with a healthy network of corridors, cottontails will be able to naturally disperse into habitat patches throughout southern Maine as they become suitable.
“Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is proud to work with private landowners to provide the necessary habitat to support New England cottontail species recovery now and into the future,” says James Connolly, director of that agency’s Bureau of Resource Management. “We feel this collaboration of state fish and wildlife agencies, private landowners, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the most effective method to accomplish species recovery on a regional basis.”