NEC Headed for Nomans Land Island Off MA Coast

By Ethan Genter, Cape Cod Times

CHILMARK – Come spring, 10 New England cottontails will be headed to Nomans Land Island, the former naval bombing site off the coast of Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, in the latest effort to restore the population of the rare regional rabbit.

New England cottontail released into habitat

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to release 10 New England cottontails in spring of 2019 on Nomans Land Island, a wildlife refuge off the coast of Cape Cod.

Nomans Land was used by the U.S. Navy from 1943 to 1996 as a target for bomb practice and then later turned over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is considered an ideal habitat for New England’s only native cottontails.

The New England cottontail prefers dense thickets of young forests, shrub lands and coastal barrens. Over several decades, those types of younger habitats have been destroyed by development and the remaining wooded areas have grown into tall, mature forests.

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leadership approved a plan to collect wild-caught and captive-reared rabbits that would then be relocated to the island to create a new population that could later be drawn on to help boost the mainland numbers.

“Though (cottontails are) no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act, continued conservation actions are critical to the recovery of the species,” the Service wrote in its environmental assessment of the plan.

“Habitat loss is still considered the primary threat to New England cottontails, affecting the species’ ability to find shelter, find food and breed. The resulting small patches of habitat that remain amplify the effects of predation, competition with eastern cottontails and viability due to small population sizes.”

The Service will trap rabbits over the winter and release 10 cottontails outfitted with GPS collars on the 628-acre island in April, said Service spokeswoman Meagan Racey. The island, already a bird sanctuary, is expected to support about 600 rabbits.

Researchers believe it’s possible the cottontails have lived on Nomans Land before, because there is evidence the island was once part of Martha’s Vineyard, which records indicate was once home to the animals.

Belgian hares and muskrats were imported to the island in the past for hunting but there is believed to be no small mammals or mammalian predators of the cottontail currently on Nomans Land.

In 1925, the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife brought 79 cottontails to Penikese, one of the Elizabeth Islands; the types were not specified. Through the 1920s and into the 1940s, 16,200 eastern cottontails were taken to Penikese Island from other states, and a number of cottontails, likely New England cottontails, were brought from Vermont, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.