New England Cottontails Multiply on Patience Island

By Alex Kuffner, Providence Journal

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The rabbit twitches its nose, sniffing the air outside the cloth sack. Crouching low on the ground, with its ears tucked tight to its body, and probably a little unsettled by its long journey by boat and truck, it barely has time to take in its new surroundings before Brian Tefft gives it an unceremonious smack on the behind.

"Go forth and prosper!" says the wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

RI biologist Brian Tefft with New England cottontail

Biologist Brian Tefft releases a radio-collared New England cottontail on Great Swamp WMA./B. Tefft

A mighty leap takes the big doe deep into the thick brambles of its new home in the Great Swamp Management Area. A few more leaps and only the flash of its fluffy white tail can be seen in the tangle.

And just like that, the rare New England cottontail hops a little closer to survival.

Six years of work by numerous government agencies and conservation groups to save the threatened species, at a cost of more than $33 million, have led to this point: the first releases of cottontails on mainland Rhode Island from a breeding colony on an isolated island in Narragansett Bay.

Coming just in time for Easter, it is a telling illustration of why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last fall removed the grayish-brown rabbit from the list of species under consideration to be designated as endangered. With efforts under way to protect the new-growth woodlands that it prefers as its habitat, the rabbit's once-dwindling population appears to be slowly rebounding; the federal agency now estimates there are 10,500 east of the Hudson River.

New England's only native rabbit has all but disappeared from Rhode Island, but now the state is playing a central role in the regional project to boost its numbers. In 2010, the Roger Williams Park Zoo, in Providence, worked with Fish and Wildlife and the DEM to set up the only captive-breeding New England cottontail program in the nation. (It was expanded to the Queens Zoo, in New York, last year.)

In 2011, the first offspring from the Roger Williams zoo were taken to a one-acre enclosure in the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, in Charlestown, so they could get used to natural surroundings. The next year, 15 were set free on Patience Island, 210 uninhabited acres in the waters between Warwick Point and Prudence Island.

The island's numbers were augmented in succeeding years with additional rabbits bred at the zoo, and the rabbits have also reproduced on their own. The Patience Island population is now thought to number at least 120, robust enough to start using it to repopulate other parts of the state.

Choosy Settler

On this March morning, Tefft is already well into the effort to move some rabbits off the island. He has timed the work for the end of winter, when they are hungriest and most easily tempted by the apple slices set out as bait in his box traps.

Clearcut timber harvest in Rhode Island

New England cottontail habitat in the making: fresh clearcut timber harvest on Nicholas Farm WMA, western Rhode Island./B. Tefft

He is joined by Wendy Finn, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island who is doing genetic work on the rabbits and studying their food preferences, as well as Travis Goodie, a contractor from Connecticut with the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute.

Goodie has been studying the New England cottontail since 2001 and caught the first brood stock used at the zoo. At last count, he has handled 600 cottontails, probably more than anyone else. Finn calls him "the rabbit guru." When asked to describe his job, he can't help but make a joke.

"I help support the integrity of Easter," Goodie deadpans.

The trio hop in a skiff for the short ride from Oakland Beach, in Warwick, to Patience Island, where they had set 95 traps the day before.

One of the reasons for the sharp decline of the New England cottontail population is believed to be the spread of human development. The more pervasive eastern cottontail, a species introduced to the region in the 1930s, can thrive in marginal areas. But its New England cousin, while visually almost indistinguishable from the eastern type, has more specific needs. It prefers "early successional habitat," young forests of the type that were prevalent when agriculture was more common and farmers regularly cleared and abandoned fields.

With only about 3 percent of Rhode Island having the right habitat, signs of New England cottontails have been few and far between. Annual winter surveys by URI and the DEM, using rabbit droppings for DNA analysis, have found only one sampling area, in South County, with evidence of the rabbit in recent years.

What Rabbits Love

As becomes clear after the boat lands, Patience Island has the perfect mix of thick weeds, shrubs and small trees to make good cottontail habitat. Until around the 1940s, the island was used as grazing land, and the grassy fields have slowly given way to thorny thickets of bittersweet, greenbrier and multiflora rose that offer ample protection from coyotes, hawks and owls.

New England cottontail habitat on Great Swamp WMA, Rhode Island

Perfect rabbit habitat, thick with young trees and shrubs, was created by a timber harvest at Great Swamp WMA in West Kingston./C. Fergus

"This is pretty difficult for humans," Tefft says as he carefully negotiates a path through a dense copse. "But this is what rabbits love."

Indeed, one of the first traps he and the others come upon holds a rabbit. Goodie slips the animal into a pillowcase-like sack and then checks its sex. It's a male, or buck. The team has already met its quota of 12 bucks on their previous trips and is only looking for does. Goodie opens the bag and the rabbit rockets off into the bushes.

"They are greased lightning," says Finn.

They catch one doe on this side of the island and release another four bucks. The bucks are easier to trap because they roam widely in the breeding season in search of mates. The scientists climb back in the boat and head over to scrubland on the island's eastern shore. There, it's the same story: Buck, buck, buck, buck, buck.

"There must be one female in here and they're all chasing her," Goodie says. As he lets the last one go, he urges it on. "Go get her!" he says.

Their luck turns, and two of the final traps hold does. They pack them on the boat and Tefft motors back to Warwick. The morning's haul brings their total to 19 this season, one short of their quota. They want to take enough rabbits to start a new colony on the mainland, but not so many as to impair the Patience Island population.

"That's a good haul," Goodie says.

"This is the rabbit A-Team," replies Tefft.

Grooming a Home

As Tefft turns his truck into the Great Swamp Management Area, 3,000-plus acres of woods and freshwater wetlands in West Kingston, the team is met by T.J. McGreevy, director of the Wildlife Genetics and Ecology Laboratory at URI, and a grad student who works there.

The lab has taken DNA samples from all the rabbits bred at Roger Williams Zoo and tracked the population on Patience Island by gathering fecal pellets for comparison. McGreevy and others at the lab will do a similar analysis on the rabbits released in the Great Swamp.

A mile or so into the management area, they pull over. Tefft, who has overseen controlled cutbacks of 100 acres here three times since 1995, points to a stand of untouched forest.

"This," he says, "is kind of rabbity." He turns to a wall of thorns on the opposite side of the path where the forest was cut back. "But this is way more rabbity."

But it's not just rabbits that benefit from the creation of more young woodlands. The work here was originally meant to create habitat for the American woodcock, a migratory shorebird whose numbers have been declining. Other shrubland songbirds, including eastern towhees, indigo buntings and blue-winged warblers, can also thrive in this environment.

Similar cuts have been done in the Arcadia Wildlife Management Area, in Exeter, and the Big River Management Area, in West Greenwich, in preparation for cottontail releases in the future. The Audubon Society of Rhode Island has also created cottontail habitat on some of its properties.

Tefft picks up the largest of the three rabbits and weighs it: 3 pounds.

"She's a big fat mama," Finn remarks. She feels its belly for babies but can't find any. The doe could be pregnant, but it's still early in the breeding season and the 28-day gestation period could have just begun.

As Tefft holds the rabbit, McGreevy carefully cuts a tiny notch of skin and fur from its ear while Finn swabs the wound for a blood sample. Both will be used to extract DNA. Finally, Tefft wraps a GPS collar around its neck and, like a surgeon with a nurse, asks for Finn's help.

"I need the U-bolt, please."

"Washer, please."

He tightens a nut with a socket wrench and soothes the rabbit. "I'm sorry for all the manhandling, sweetheart," he says.

A moment later, he sets it free.

Wrapping Up

The next day, Tefft, Goodie and Finn catch the last female they need. They're finished for the year, and will spend the next nine months or so waiting to see how the relocated rabbits fare.

In the meantime, Tefft will come out twice a week to get readings from the radio collars, checking to see where the rabbits roam. The team won't have a clearer picture of the rabbits' fate until next winter, when the first snow falls, and students and staff from the URI lab come out to collect their pellets — they're easier to find against the blanket of white.

Twenty rabbits have made the trip, 12 bucks and 8 does. If half survive, that will be considered a good return. Because female cottontails can become pregnant with four or five young up to four times a year, the rabbits' numbers are quickly replenished.

It's a lot of work for a little animal that most people will never see, but Goodie and the others have no doubt it's worth it.

"When my kids are old enough to ask me what I do, I'll say, 'I helped save an animal from getting wiped off the planet, '" says the father of two.