Narrow River Land Trust, Rhode Island

Land Trust’s Role Includes Actively Managing Habitat

“We know the population of the New England cottontail rabbit has fallen rangewide,” says Gary Casabona, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) biologist based in Warwick, R.I. “Here in Rhode Island, the species’ decline has been especially dramatic. It’s also been hard to quantify, thanks to a lookalike rabbit, the eastern cottontail, that’s also found across the state.”

Chestnut-sided warblers use New England cottontail habitat

It's not just cottontails that get a boost when young forest is created. Birds like this chestnut-sided warbler also find food and homes in the new thick growth./J. Larkin

The eastern cottontail was introduced to Rhode Island and much of New England around 85 years ago as a game species to be hunted. “Since it’s so hard to tell eastern from New England cottontails visually,” Casabona explains, “conservationists often must rely on DNA analysis to confirm the presence of New England cottontails in a given area.” During winter, wildlife biologists and volunteers go into likely habitat areas and look for rabbit tracks in the snow. Says Casabona, “They also find and pick up rabbit fecal pellets, or ‘scat,’ and store them in a cooler so the DNA in the scat doesn’t break down.” The samples go to the University of Rhode Island’s Conservation Genetics Laboratory, where DNA testing reveals whether eastern cottontails or New England cottontails deposited the pellets.

“Five scat samples have proven to be from New England cottontails in Rhode Island over the last several years,” reports Casabona. “After verifying a population on the ground, the next step is to provide enough feeding and hiding cover in or near the occupied area so that the local cottontail population doesn’t decline further or even vanish.”

In 2013, members of the board of the Narrow River Land Trust (NRLT) approached Casabona. They were interested in making some young forest – prime New England cottontail habitat – on their land, specifically on a tract called the Viall Property, Washington County, a mile west of the shore of Narragansett Bay. As an NRCS biologist, it’s Casabona’s job to help plan and ultimately fund such habitat-creation projects. “I was incredibly excited,” he says. “The land they were proposing for management was only about a mile away from one of the sites where biologists had recently found scat samples from New England cottontails.” That meant the site was within dispersal distance, and the native rabbits might spread into any newly created habitat.

Finding the Right Place to Make Habitat

Casabona worked with NRLT board members Julie Sharpe and Rob Macmillan to identify two adjacent areas totaling 19 acres that could be managed to help cottontails. “The idea was to cut down mature forest so that it would come back thickly, with plenty of young sapling trees sprouting from the stumps, along with shrubs such as blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and greenbriar. Rabbits need these types of habitats for dense hiding cover, which protects them from predators, and to find winter food – they eat the tender twigs of young saplings and shrubs when green plant food is unavailable.”

There was just one problem, and it was a big one: Other land trust members, many of whom were birdwatchers, weren’t sold on the concept that cutting down trees could be good for wildlife. Says Sharpe, “The biggest challenge for the land trust was explaining to our members and neighbors the rationale for cutting trees that to them were perfectly healthy, well-loved, and admired.” As land trust members, “some people felt that the trees had been entrusted to us into perpetuity and that cutting them was a violation of that trust.”

habitat at Narrow River Land Trust

Young forest grows back quickly, replacing logging debris and offering food and cover to wildlife./G. Casabona

Continued Sharpe, “In order to succeed, we had to stay in front of the story and use our work as an opportunity to engage our community in a deeper understanding – not only of how our forest and species diversity has in fact changed over time, but also of how the role of a land trust calls for our ongoing attention and active management.”

The NRLT board invited Casabona to give a talk on the subject during one of their membership meetings. Casabona explained to his audience that Rhode Island already has many large areas of mature forest, while “shrubby young forest with dense vegetation at ground level has dwindled over recent decades.” He noted that such habitat arises in a forest following a disturbance like a hurricane, a wildfire, or a clearcut timber harvest. In the absence of hurricanes and wildfires, “Humans need to step in,” Casabona says. “Without active management, the understory of shrubs and other plants in a forest will die out, disappearing in the shade cast by a mature forest. And it’s those dense plants that New England cottontails and a whole suite of other wildlife need to survive.”

Communicating a Key Concept

Many birds that breed in young forest have had sharp population declines in the Northeast and in Rhode Island in recent decades, including American woodcock, prairie warbler, blue-winged warbler, brown thrasher, eastern towhee, field sparrow, and whip-poor-will. Creating new young forest on the Narrow River Land Trust property would provide new potential breeding habitat for these beleaguered species.

“When I told the audience that these areas would also provide highly nutritious fruits needed by migratory songbirds during their fall migration," Casabona recalls, “I could see they were starting to grasp the importance of this type of habitat enhancement and its benefit to a whole lot of animals in addition to rabbits.”

With support from the land trust membership, the project moved forward during the winter of 2013. “The management project can probably be best described as a seedtree cut,” says Casabona, “where most of the mature trees were cut down but a number of trees per acre were left standing.”

Fresh habitat at Narrow River Land Trust

Fall colors brighten the thickly regrowing young forest on the Viall Property of Narrow River Land Trust./G. Casabona

“The trees to be left were identified and marked before the cut started,” says board member Rob Macmillan. “We tried to leave trees that provided some type of benefit, such as white oaks with good crowns for producing acorns, or trees with cavities that could be used by cavity-nesting birds.” NRLT and Casabona made the local logging contractor, Miller Firewood & Logging, aware of the goals of the project before cutting got underway. Macmillan says the company did a thorough, competent job: “They cut many unmerchantable trees, avoided driving over the cut treetops, and spread them out over the site whenever possible. We asked them to leave several larger logs per acre for wildlife use, and they also constructed brush piles for wildlife cover.”

The large amounts of woody material left on the ground will provide habitat for salamanders and snakes before they eventually break down, cycling nutrients back into the soil. The cut treetops also act as a physical barrier and help deter deer from browsing on sprouts from the cut stumps. The stump sprouts, in addition to being the source of a new forest, also provide food for rabbits. Notes Casabona, “Without the shade of the large trees overhead, sunlight now can reach the forest floor, and the blueberry, huckleberry and other understory plants are growing in lush, providing resources for rabbits, birds, and other kinds of wildlife.”

“It’s been a positive experience working with the professionals from the local NRCS office,” says NRLT’s Macmillan. “They’ve been very enthusiastic about the project and continue to be involved and interested even after the on-the-ground work has been completed. Besides the focus on New England cottontails, they have also conducted several bird surveys and are already planning a site visit to assess the regenerating vegetation next spring. We look forward to watching the changes that take place on the site over time and hope the NRCS will continue to help monitor the work that has been done.”

Partners and Funding

Narrow River Land Trust, University of Rhode Island Conservation Genetics Laboratory, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wildlife Management Institute