Rhode Island

New Habitat and an Island Population

New England cottontails were once abundant throughout southern Rhode Island west of Narragansett Bay, but their numbers plummeted as young forest and shrubland dwindled in the state. Habitat was lost through natural forest maturation (cottontails don’t live in older woodlands) and to residential and commercial development. In recent years, biologists have found evidence of four small populations.

To learn about specific habitat demonstration areas and projects, go back to the dropdown for Rhode Island under the Success Stories menu item and scroll down below the state summary.
New England cottontail with radio-telemetry device

Radio-collared New England cottontail before release at Great Swamp WMA./B. Tefft

Since 2006, the Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife has made 125 acres of regenerating young forest on three wildlife management areas in the state’s Southwest New England Cottontail Focus Area: Great Swamp WMA; Arcadia WMA; and Nicholas Farm WMA, which adjoins neighboring Pachaug State Forest in Connecticut, where a known population of New England cottontails lives.

Managers make habitat through harvesting timber and conducting prescribed burning. The new habitat sites will provide food and cover for cottontails and other wildlife while functioning as demonstration areas where private landowners can see young forest and consider making it themselves. Over the next 10 years, conservationists plan to make an additional 675 acres of habitat.

In 2012, using New England cottontails born in captivity at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, conservationists started a population of New England cottontails on 210-acre Patience Island in Narragansett Bay, owned and managed by the Division of Fish and Wildlife. Since then, biologists have released 73 captive-raised rabbits onto the island to establish a breeding colony there. As of early 2017, biologists estimated the current population on the island to be 200 rabbits and are now conducting research to refine that estimate.

In March 2016, biologists live-trapped 20 New England cottontails on the island and relocated them to good habitat created on Great Swamp WMA in south Kingstown. Several of the rabbits survived through the summer and fall at Great Swamp, and biologists expect that one or more of the females may have produced young in this patch, which previously had no New England cottontails. Additional captive-raised zoo rabbits were added to the patch in late fall of 2016, and more will be translocated from Patience Island in spring 2017. Conservationists hope that the Great Swamp population will continue to grow and expand, establishing itself as a self-sustaining colony. Over time, the breeding population on Patience Island may become the source for starting new populations elsewhere in Rhode Island and in other parts of the species’ range.

Says Department of Environmental Management director Janet Coit, "Through partnership, we have made great strides to save this native rabbit from possible extinction. Through careful planning, good science, and the dedicated conservation work of many partners, the New England cottontail may once again thrive in the woodlands in the region."