Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area, Cumberland County

Clearcutting Replaces Winds and Fires

In times past, Scarborough Marsh must have seen Atlantic hurricanes topple trees, and uncontrolled fires rage across the land. But no hurricane has come calling in decades, and we have suppressed wildfires. The result? Lots of middle-aged woods, and little shrubland or young forest. So in 2011, conservationists used clearcut logging to replicate, in a carefully planned way, the effects of landscape-altering storms and wildfires.

Helping Cottontails

Habitat resulting from 2011 clearcut at Scarborough Marsh WMA

After five years, habitat has grown back in abundance on site that was clearcut in 2011. A broad range of wildlife use this young forest area./Michael Kelley

As of 2012, Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area was the only property of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife with a confirmed population of New England cottontails. The bunnies were hanging on in a threadbare tract of 9 acres of mostly invasive shrubs. Conservationists determined that up to 60 acres of woods and grasslands wrapping around this core habitat offered a great opportunity to make more and better cover for rabbits.

In February and March 2011, loggers clearcut mature forest on 21 acres. Decades in the past, these wooded acres were farmed; over time, through the process known as forest succession, they gradually became young forest, then mature woods – good habitat for some kinds of wildlife, but not the endangered New England cottontail. (Plenty of other middle-aged and mature woodland exists in the area.)

New young forest at Scarborough Marsh WMA

After just one growing season, aspen shoots towered up on the cut-over area -- making great rabbit habitat. (Note person standing in the cover.)/K. Boland

The logging harvested mainly white pines and hardwood trees. Now the root systems of the cut-down hardwoods have begun sending up a jungle of new shoots. Shrubs – including blackberry tangles – are spreading out in the abundant sunlight that now reaches the ground.

A clearcut can look raw and not-very-pretty for the first year or so after it has taken place. But the land responds quickly, with a flush of greenery that soon provides brand new young-forest habitat for cottontails, along with American woodcock, indigo buntings, Eastern towhees, chestnut-sided warblers, common yellowthroats, brown thrashers, wood and box turtles, green snakes and black racers – all of which find much-needed food and cover in the dense, quickly regrowing vegetation.

From Grasses to Shrubs

Parts of Scarborough Marsh have been kept in grasses for years, mainly through mowing and prescribed burning.

brown thrashers need young forest habitat

Brown thrashers and other birds feed on abundant fruit produced by shrubs in New England cottontail habitat./E. Guthro

Native shrubs scattered through the grasslands and in damp areas include alder, winterberry, meadowsweet, viburnums, hawthorn, juniper, and others. Non-native invasive shrubs such as honeysuckle and autumn olive form a less-desirable part of the mix. Habitat managers have stopped mowing parts of the old fields near the logged area. As key areas grow up in shrubs, corridors will form between new young forest and existing shrub habitats so that cottontails can move freely through the habitat.

Managers hope to rejuvenate aging stands of alders by using machines to shear off the shrubs, causing them to grow back luxuriantly from their root systems. Workers will build brush piles where rabbits can hide from predators and find shelter at night and during cold weather. Biologists plan to survey the regrowing young-forest and shrub stands to learn how quickly the local cottontail population expands into these habitats.

Come Visit!

Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area lies along the tidally influenced Scarborough River about 3 miles inland from the coast. Of the WMA’s 3,100 acres, 2,900 are salt marsh or other wetlands: Scarborough Marsh is one of the most important shorebird habitats in southern Maine. The WMA is north of Old Orchard Beach. The area managed for New England cottontails is behind Scarborough Industrial Park along Manson Libby Road. A small parking area and turnout lie near the intersection of Washington and Manson Libby roads.

A fun way to reach the WMA is via the Eastern Trail, a walking and bicycling route on an old railroad right-of-way that borders one of the new cottontail habitat management units. (The Eastern Trail is a scenic pathway being developed from Kittery to South Portland.)

For more information on this project, or to set up a site visit, contact Judy Camuso, wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 358 Shaker Rd., Gray ME 04039, 207-657-2345 x 109, Direct questions about New England cottontails and their habitat needs to Jeff Tash, New England Cottontail Restoration Coordinator (Maine), 207-646-9226 x 32,


Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Environmental Defense Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute