Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, York and Cumberland Counties

Wildlife Hotspots in the Making

Saws whined and trees thumped the ground as loggers harvested oaks and pines. Using shovels, digging bars, and plenty of elbow grease, volunteers planted native shrubs in old fields. These very different efforts are creating much-needed homes for New England cottontails, along with a host of other wild creatures from tiny flycatchers to furtive bobcats.

Helping Cottontails

Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge protects key habitats along the migration routes of waterfowl and other birds along a Maine coast that has seen heavy human development. Refuge lands total more than 5,300 acres in 11 locations from Kittery north to Cape Elizabeth (just south of Portland), and include salt marsh, freshwater wetlands, grasslands, old fields, and forested uplands.

It’s those last three habitat types – grasslands, old fields, and forest – on which management efforts have focused to make more and better cover for rabbits.

Cutts Island Management Unit

Stone walls meandering through the woods show that forested land on this 25-acre tract in York County was once cleared for farming.

Stone walls show that logged area was once an old farm field

This old stone wall used to be in the woods. Now it will be surrounded by rabbit-friendly young forest./C. Fergus

The trees that had grown in included oaks, birches, maples, and white pines around 80 years old – too mature to provide habitat for New England cottontails, because their bushy crowns cut off sunlight, causing ground-covering food plants to die off. (Not to worry: There’s plenty of other middle-aged forest, also an important wildlife habitat, elsewhere on Rachel Carson and on neighboring private lands as well.)

In 2009 and 2010, loggers cut down trees on 10 acres, harvesting sawlogs, firewood, and chips that went to a local biomass woodburning power plant. (The logging helped support a local business and put $8,000 into the federal government’s general fund.) Loggers made sure to preserve desirable young-forest trees and native shrubs such as gray birch, arrowwood, and highbush huckleberry. The cut-over forest is now growing back as a dense thicket of shrubs and tree seedlings and sprouts.

Volunteers from local high schools and Defenders of Wildlife worked alongside Fish and Wildlife Service conservationists, building brushpiles out of logs and branches – places where cottontails can tuck themselves away to stay warm in cold weather and to hide from predators.

The workers also planted native shrubs in three fields, both to create habitat for the local cottontails and to conduct an experimental shrubland project. In 20-by-20-foot plots, on both dry and wet sites, shrubs were planted as seeds and as different-aged stock (including bare-root and potted plants) using several different methods.

Black racers also need young-forest habitat

All kinds of wildlife use rabbit habitat, including black racers./J. Mays

The shrubs, all native species, included juniper, staghorn sumac, chokecherry, three kinds of dogwood, highbush blueberry, hazelnut, blackberry, elderberry, nannyberry, meadowsweet, and Virginia rose – great food and cover for bunnies. Conservationists will monitor shrub growth to see which species do best and which planting techniques are most effective.

Before the shrubs were planted, conservationists used a controlled burn to knock back non-native invasive shrubs that had gotten a foothold in the fields, including barberry, buckthorn, multiflora rose, and honeysuckle. Over time, managers hope to limit the less-desirable invasive shrubs to less than 25 percent of all shrubs growing on the management unit.

A spring breeding-bird survey noted which species were using the site before logging and shrub-planting began. Biologists will repeat the survey in future years. Young-forest birds whose numbers should increase include blue-winged warblers, gray catbirds, Eastern towhees, and song sparrows – all species of greatest conservation need in Maine, whose populations have been falling here and throughout the Northeast as the amount of young-forest and shrubland habitat has dwindled over the last 50 years.

Kelly and Libby Fields

Together these two fallow fields take in 57 acres along the Spurwink River in Cumberland County, in a landscape complicated by roads, towns, houses, and other development. Cottontails live on Libby Field, which is only a mile away from Kelly Field, and biologists expect the rabbits will move into Kelly Field when they fan out, as juveniles, from the areas where they were born.

Conservationists inspect new shrub growth at Libby Field

Conservationists check out new shrubs shooting up at Libby Field./C. Fergus

One technique that conservationists are using at Kelly and Libby fields is simplicity itself: stopping the mowing of grassy and weedy areas, and letting these areas sprout shrubs that will gradually and naturally become cottontail habitat.

Other methods are more dramatic: In 2010 and 2011, conservationists turned loose a big machine called a brontosaurus, whose high-speed cutting head worked like a lumbering dinosaur to chew off young trees and tired old shrubs. After this treatment, the trees and shrubs sent up dense new young shoots that, within a couple of years, should turn these areas into ideal cottontail habitat.

Since 2005, managers have been planting native shrubs, plus seedlings of aspen and birch trees – fast-growing species that can quickly cloak the landscape with young forest. Workers also pruned existing trees and shrubs to stimulate root sprouting, which creates dense habitat.

Non-native invasive shrubs dominate parts of Kelly and Libby fields. Cottontails live in those areas, but it’s not ideal habitat for them. As conservationists keep planting native vegetation, they hope to swing the balance of species from mainly invasive ones to mainly native types, which offer better food and cover. They’re experimenting with different planting methods and regimens, and are monitoring new shrub growth, with an eye toward discovering how best to create native shrublands without using chemical herbicides.

Come Visit!

Although most of Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge is closed to the public, visitors can access different habitats on trails. Cutts Island Management Unit lies next to and north of Seapoint Road. Kelly and Libby fields are two miles north of Higgins Beach. They are near a small parking area for a public fishing pier along Maine Route 77. To visit habitat areas, contact wildlife biologist Kate O’Brien, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, 321 Port Rd., Wells ME 04090, phone 207-646-9226 x 27, email kate_obrien@fws.gov.

Funding and Partners

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Defense Fund, Tom's of Maine, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute