Pachaug State Forest, New London County

Go Pachaug: It's Number One!

Biologists have long known that the Wyassup Block in eastern Connecticut’s Pachaug State Forest hosts a population of New England cottontails. Reports from veteran rabbit hunters sparked the biologists’ interest in the area; live-trapping and telemetry studies confirmed cottontails thriving in young forest near Wyassup Lake. (This healthy population became the source for most of the animals taken from the wild to start the captive breeding program for New England cottontails at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island.)

New England cottontail in live trap

New England cottontail trapped for captive breeding program.

The presence of New England cottontails, coupled with the fact that 24,000-acre Pachaug State Forest represents a big chunk of protected, state-managed land, earned the area the top score for potential New England cottontail restoration in Connecticut and in the species’ range as a whole, based on evaluation procedures developed by scientists who specialize in these rabbits and the kinds of habitat they need.

But the young forest that harbored cottontails at Pachaug wasn’t going to remain top-quality habitat forever. One area of habitat sprang up following timber harvests made in the 1990s – which meant the regrowing trees were gradually getting too old, too large and widely spaced apart, to provide the dense, close-growing stems that hide New England cottontails from predators and offer the food and shelter that the rabbits need to make it through winter.

Even-Aged Management is Key

Biologists with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection worked with state foresters to make areas of fresh New England cottontail habitat: even-aged management in two large tracts right next to existing young forest where cottontails currently live. Even-aged management means regeneration cutting, accomplished either through clearcutting or harvesting most mature trees while leaving some for seed production, wildlife use, or aesthetics. This type of management can actually improve forest health while giving rise to the young forest that New England cottontails need. (Many other wild creatures must also have this kind of habitat to live and raise their young.)

thick habitat

Regrowing young forest will provide homes for New England cottontails at Pachaug State Forest./C. Fergus

A timber harvest project completed in December 2014 created 111 acres of new habitat. This cut is next to 90 acres that were treated in 2006. Rabbits currently live in the 90-acre tract, sharing the habitat with birds like eastern towhees, chestnut-sided warblers, and indigo buntings, plus many mammals and reptiles that also need young, regrowing woodland. This even-aged forest management mimics natural disturbances like wildfires or windstorms that consume or topple acres of trees. The stumps and root systems of the harvested trees send up tons of new shoots, plus many new young trees sprout from acorns and other seeds. And what do you get? A thicket, a tangle, a vigorous density of cover that’s just right for cottontails.

More timber harvests are planned in the near future to add another 92 acres of young forest to the habitat mix. With regular management and continuing cooperation between biologists and foresters, this part of the Pachaug Forest should remain Number One for New England cottontails for years to come.

Partners and Funding

Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute (Connecticut Federal Aid Habitat Budget, State Wildlife Grant, coordinated in partnership with WMI)

How to Visit

Pachaug State Forest is in eastern Connecticut north of Interstate 95. For more information on this and other habitat projects, contact these biologists with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division: Paul Rothbart at, 860-295-9523, or Lisa Wahle at, 860-295-9523.

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