White Memorial Foundation, Litchfield County

If We Build It, They Will Come

Since 90 percent of Connecticut is privately owned, enlisting private landowners to make habitat for New England cottontails is crucial to saving the species. In 2012 the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, working with other state and federal agencies, helped plan and launch habitat projects on more than 250 acres of private land.

Logging machine at work on White Memorial Foundation

Timber harvester at work. Soon young trees will grow here vigorously, offering great habitat for New England cottontails.

One of those projects took place on White Memorial Foundation in Litchfield County in the northwestern part of the state. The Foundation takes in more than 4,000 acres, used for conservation, research, education, and recreation; biologists have documented the presence of New England cottontails on the property. There’s a major young forest habitat project already underway on Camp Columbia State Forest less than a mile off – “Definitely within the range of young New England cottontails dispersing and looking for new homes,” says James Fischer, biologist and research director at White Memorial Foundation.

The Foundation chose a 45-acre site for habitat work: a mix of old fields and woods where trees had reached middle age and weren’t offering enough food and cover for cottontails. Most of the area was overrun with invasive shrubs – nonnative, aggressive plants that provide some food and cover for wildlife but not as much as the diverse shrubs that are native to the region.

In fall 2012, a mechanical tree harvester removed trees, with most of the wood sold as firewood. A heavy-duty mower went over the shrubby fields. In the end, around 21 acres of woodland were cut and 4 acres of shrubby old fields were mowed. Both of those areas will spring back as thick, robust vegetation and regrowing trees – just the kind of habitat that cottontails need. To provide temporary cover as the trees and shrubs grow back, conservationists built brushpiles – 83 of them! (Cottontails and other wildlife shelter in brushpiles to wait out inclement weather and to hide from predators.)

Biologist explains why wildlife needs young forest.

Connecticut DEEP biologist Paul Rothbart explains how young forest project at White Memorial will help wildlife and improve habitat diversity on the 4,000-acre property.

Even as machines were harvesting trees, the Foundation held a seminar on New England cottontails and the suite of birds that need shrubland and young forest – birds whose numbers have been falling for decades. Members of local land trusts and bird clubs got to see the fresh, new habitat being made, and could consider making young forest on lands they own or manage.

“It was an enlightening experience for most of those folks,” Fischer says. “They were impressed with how carefully we had planned our management approach, and most seemed pleased that we were thinking beyond managing for a single species. Sure, the work will create much-needed habitat for New England cottontails, but that habitat will also help birds like eastern towhees, blue-winged warblers, prairie warblers, and brown thrashers. People were really receptive to this multi-species approach.”

The new habitat links to other existing young forest on White Memorial Foundation, including a shrubby wetlands. Says Fischer, “We hope that this core of healthy habitat will soon support a population of cottontails, and that the rabbits will increase and spread to other parts of our land.”

Watch a video showing how conservationists are helping New England cottontails at White Memorial.

Partners and Funding

White Memorial Foundation, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Wildlife Management Institute

How to Visit

Find out more about White Memorial Foundation, including how to visit this conservation center in the hills of northwestern Connecticut. The Foundation operates a nature museum and offers hiking, camping, and boating, as well as special areas for outdoor educational and recreational gatherings.

For more information on young forest habitat at White Memorial Foundation, contact James Fischer at james@whitememorialcc.org, 860-567-0857, or these biologists with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Wildlife Division: Paul Rothbart at Paul.Rothbart@ct.gov, 860-295-9523, or Lisa Wahle at Lisa.Wahle@ct.gov, 860-295-9523.