Habitat Projects Moving Forward in New Hampshire

From New Hampshire Fish and Game Department:
For the New England cottontail, mild winter conditions during 2011-2012 were a stroke of luck: The lack of snow made it easier for the bunnies to hide and find food. For the biologists who are surveying cottontails, the same conditions made it maddeningly difficult to find evidence of the rabbits' presence.

The challenges have not slowed the efforts of biologists from New Hampshire Fish and Game's Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program, along with partners across the Northeast, to ensure the survival of this state-endangered native rabbit.

Over the past few years, Fish and Game has worked with University of New Hampshire researchers, who developed protocols for detecting New England cottontails and creating population estimates from survey results.

New England cottontail portrait

Here's looking at you! A New England cottontail peers out of a thicket./J. Greene

Fish and Game staff helped collect data and are continuing to look for any rabbits that may not have been identified during the previous years' work and to confirm the persistence of individual rabbits at the occupied habitat patches.

To find out how many New England cottontails are left and just where they are found, biologists usually look for evidence of the rabbits' presence in the snow. Needless to say, last winter there wasn't much snow in which to track rabbits in southern New Hampshire!

Monitoring New England cottontails provides information on the location of remaining populations, but the road to recovery for the species lies in efforts to increase the amount of habitat on the landscape and the number of rabbits that occupy those habitats.

Many management tools are used to create the thickets that New England cottontails need – the same type of brambly patch that saved Br'er Rabbit many a time. Timber harvesting, invasive species removal, and planting of native shrubs and forbs are three techniques that Fish and Game has been using to return historic cottontail habitat to its shrubby, scrubby ideal stage. These management actions, based on a scientific species recovery plan, will benefit dozens of other animals, such as chestnut-sided warblers, smooth green snakes, and American woodcock, which also need healthy young forests and shrublands. To date, more than 300 acres of new habitat have been created on both public and private lands since 2009. An additional 1,700 acres are needed to meet the goal for available habitat in New Hampshire by 2030.

After we build it, New England cottontails will come; we need to be patient, however, because it may take up to five years of growth for the new thickets to be ready for rabbits to take up residence. In the meantime, working with partners at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, biologists have established a pilot program for breeding the cottontails in captivity. The goal is to ensure genetic diversity and health in the animals, and then release the rabbits into the wild. This pilot program may be expanded to other facilities across the Northeast, with an aim toward boosting declining populations across the region and reintroducing rabbits to their historic range.

While the warm, dry winter made things tough for biologists, the lack of snow provided better concealment for the rabbits, whose fur remains brown in winter. It also let the rabbits forage on twigs, bark and buds of woody shrubs that can be hard to access in soft, deep snow. The early spring brought green-up during the first part of the breeding season, yielding high-quality nutrition for new litters.

New Hampshire Fish and Game is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and other conservation partners across six states in the Northeast to help the New England cottontail. Once common in our state, the population of this rabbit has dwindled over the last 50 years, so that today this unique native mammal faces possible extinction.

For more information:
Heidi Holman: 603-271-3018
Liza Poinier: 603-271-3211