New Best Management Practices for New England Cottontail

A new 28-page publication, Best Management Practices for the New England Cottontail: How to Create, Enhance and Maintain Habitat, will equip habitat managers and landowners with detailed knowledge of how to make habitat necessary for the survival of the New England cottontail, a rare regional rabbit currently found in six northeastern states.

The new BMPs are currently published in an electronic format. Physical copies will be made available in the coming months.

Says Judy Wilson, a habitat biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and a member of the team that developed the publication, “This user-friendly guide will help biologists, foresters and land managers increase and improve habitat for New England cottontails while minimizing harm to existing populations.”
Cover of NEC Best Management Practices publication
She adds, “We envision this guide as the ‘go to’ resource for land trusts, private landowners, consulting foresters and conservation groups who want to learn about managing habitat to benefit the New England cottontail, and then convert that knowledge into real, on-the-ground habitat projects.”

The new guide replaces a 2013 edition with a similar title. Says Wilson, “The revision incorporates the best knowledge presented in the 2013 publication, with updates based on input from biologists and researchers across the cottontail’s range. It embodies the most up-to-date science on NEC habitat requirements and habitat management practices.”

A Habitat Program Working Group developed the publication in cooperation with the New England Cottontail Technical Committee, a group of state and federal natural resource professionals carrying out the Conservation Strategy for the New England Cottontail, originally developed in 2012. The Strategy’s ongoing and successful implementation has already resulted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removing the New England cottontail from a list of wildlife species being considered for inclusion on the federal Endangered Species list, “a decision based on the extraordinary habitat and population restoration efforts undertaken so far on behalf of the NEC,” says Wilson.

The development of the new BMPs was supported by Wildlife Restoration Grant funds
through a grant administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, and by the Wildlife Management Institute.

The New England cottontail population plummeted over the last 50 years as its preferred habitats – interconnected patches of young, regrowing forest and expanses of shrublands and old fields – declined due to humans’ development of the landscape and the gradual reforestation of southern New England. New England cottontails, like American woodcock, blue-winged warblers, and box and wood turtles, do not thrive in the uniform middle-aged and older woodlands that have increasingly come to dominate the region. When young forest habitat is created for New England cottontails, more than 65 other species of at-risk wildlife also benefit.

Biologist in New England cottontail habitat

Biologist Kelly Boland, one of the team who developed the new BMPs, checks out New England cottontail habitat at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine./C. Fergus

Wildlife researchers estimate that the New England cottontail’s range has shrunk by up to 85 percent in recent decades. Today the species is restricted to southern Maine, southern New Hampshire, and parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York east of the Hudson River – less than a fifth of its historic range. Within the current range, biologists have designated Habitat Focus Areas in which to concentrate habitat-creation and enhancement efforts. In addition to a dwindling of suitable habitat, the New England cottontail faces competition from a much larger population of imported eastern cottontails, non-native rabbits that are able to use the region’s fragmented habitat more effectively.

In addition to Wilson, the following biologists also helped develop the recent edition of Best Management Practices for the New England Cottontail: Jeff Norment, with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Maine, who chaired the committee during most of its multi-year revision process until he retired in early 2017; Andrew Johnson, with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Wildlife Management Institute; Kelly Boland, NRCS in New Hampshire; Kim Farrell, NRCS in New York; Marianne Piché, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife; Ted Kendziora, with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s New England field office; and Gary Casabona, NRCS in Rhode Island.

All of those habitat biologists have deep experience in planning for and creating the young forest and shrubland habitats that New England cottontails require. In identifying and shaping the Best Management Practices, they worked closely with other biologists carrying out field research on cottontails, so that the latest findings gained through radio-telemetry and habitat-use studies inform the updated BMPs.

Says Wilson, “Now in full color and a large-size format, and improved with additional photographs and graphics, the guide represents a great companion to several existing outreach products including an informative brochure on the New England cottontail and the new Young Forest Guide, publications aimed at landowners and the general public produced by communications specialists with the Wildlife Management Institute.

Wilson points out that pertinent websites and references to scientific papers are included in the new BMPs. There is also a section of professional contacts. “We encourage land managers and landowners to use those contacts early on to obtain state-specific guidance when planning habitat projects,” she says.