New NEC Confirmed on Western CT Preserve

By Anna Quinn, Danbury News Times

WASHINGTON — At least a few of the once nearly endangered New England cottontail rabbits have found a home at Steep Rock Association’s Macricostas Preserve, recent tests show. The preserve is in Litchfield County.

collecting pellets of New England cottontail

Citizen scientists collected rabbit fecal pellets that demonstrated presence of New England cottontails on a western Connecticut land trust preserve./Anna Quinn

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has released a “pellet analysis” of several rabbit droppings it tested from the 500-acre preserve, which were collected by a group of volunteers last winter.

The analysis, part of DEEP’s efforts to track the species, shows that three of the five samples the “citizen scientists” sent to the lab were, in fact, from New England cottontail rabbits.

“Full-blown surveys and quality data collection take a lot of work, something that many entities in the conservation field simply can't afford, but thanks to volunteers they can be made possible,” said Rory Larson, conservation and program leader for Steep Rock. “The knowledge gained by all involved is incredibly valuable.”

Macricosta’s pellet survey, the first on the preserve, was part of a state effort to map out where New England cottontails still live and, in some areas, inform habitat rehabilitation or other efforts.

Larson said he isn’t sure yet what the confirmation will mean for DEEP’s efforts at Macricostas, but that Steep Rock will be incorporating the results in its management plan for the preserve.

The winter pellet survey is one of many ways state, federal and non-governmental organizations across the region have been working since 2009 to save the New England cottontail, Connecticut’s only native rabbit. The rabbits were considered a candidate for the federal endangered species list in 2006 after their range decreased by 85 percent, mainly due to habitat loss, according to DEEP.

They were taken out of consideration for the list in 2015 once conservation efforts by a host of federal, state and nongovernmental and private partners began to help the species rebound.

Last winter, Larson and a small group of volunteers had ventured across the preserve’s wooded areas in search of droppings, which they put into baggies (with collection locations marked) and sent to a genetics lab for testing.

Of those that were not identified as New England cottontails, one sample was found to be an eastern cottontail and another could not be identified.

(Learn more about Steep Rock Association).