Captive Breeding May Help Save the New England Cottontail

In November 2011, conservationists and captive-breeding specialists released nine three- to four-month-old New England cottontails at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge on the southern coast of Rhode Island.

The rabbits, born from matings between wild cottontails from Connecticut, were placed in a 1-acre brushy area surrounded by predator-proof fencing. As of February 2012, they were doing well in their semi-wild home.

New England cottontail litter reared at Roger Williams Park Zoo

Baby bunnies born of wild parents at Roger Williams Park Zoo./L. Perotti

Says Lou Perotti, Director of Conservation Programs at Roger Williams Zoo Park in Providence, “We’ve learned that we can successfully breed New England cottontails in captivity and raise the young from birth through weaning. Now we are testing whether captive-born rabbits can be released to a wild setting and survive the winter.” Ultimately, he adds, “we’ll have a better idea of whether we’ve developed husbandry protocols that can succeed on a larger scale.”

In spring 2012, biologists with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management plan to conduct a pilot release of additional rabbits born and reared at Roger Williams Zoo. Those bunnies will be placed on a small island in Narragansett Bay. Conservationists will monitor the rabbits to see whether they survive and reproduce. If all goes well, the site could become a source population for other cottontail restoration efforts.

Captive breeding is but one facet of a regionwide initiative aimed at restoring a once-common rabbit whose population has plummeted over the last 50 years. Throughout the six states where New England cottontails still live, conservationists are creating and improving habitat that the species needs: brushy land, clearcut woods regrowing as young forest, thickets, and shrubby old-field areas.

New England cottontail released at Ninigret NWR

Lou Perotti frees a New England cottontail into an enclosure at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, an early step in reintroducing cottontails to areas where the bunnies have vanished./E. Derlith USFWS

Many other kinds of wildlife use habitat created for New England cottontails, including birds, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians. This kind of habitat, often referred to by the general term young forest, is dwindling in the Northeast.

Many partners have contributed to the captive-breeding effort, including biologists from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, who caught the first wild cottontails and delivered them to the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Genetics testing at the Conservation Genetics Laboratory of the University of Rhode Island confirmed that the captured bunnies were indeed New England cottontails and not Eastern cottontails, a similar-appearing species. A Captive Breeding Working Group comprised of biologists from all six New England states provided direction and advice; this group will help guide the transition from captive breeding through actual in-the-field repopulation efforts.

Funding for the New England cottontail restoration project has come from a wide variety of sources including the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid Wildlife Restoration Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Rhode Island, and Roger Williams Park Zoo.

For more information, contact Janet Mariani, director of marketing and public relations at Roger Williams Park Zoo, 401-785-3510, extension 378. Lou Perotti directs the Zoo’s conservation programs; he can be reached at 401-785-3510, extension 335. Gail Mastrati is communications director for Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, 401-222-4700, extension 2402.