NH Project Bringing Back New England Cottontails

By Shawne K. Wickham
Manchester Union Leader, New Hampshire Sunday News

NEWINGTON - It's just after 8 a.m. and Tyler Mahard is hunting for rabbits.

Mahard, a wildlife technician for the state Fish and Game Department, is using telemetry equipment to search for rare New England cottontails inside a pen at the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

New England cottontail in habitat

Conservationists are working to restore a healthy population of New England's native cottontail in New Hampshire.

It's part of an coordinated effort by federal and state agencies, private landowners, municipalities, businesses and conservation groups to return New England's only native rabbit to the New Hampshire landscape. One parcel at a time, they're working to create the shrubby habitat that the rabbits need to survive and thrive.

If you've seen a rabbit in your yard or on a golf course, it's likely an eastern cottontail, not its rarer New England cousin, according to Heidi Holman, wildlife diversity biologist at Fish and Game.

Holman estimates there are only about 100 New England cottontails (NEC) left in New Hampshire. The animal is designated an endangered species by the state and has been a candidate for the federal Endangered Species List since 2006.

But those working for the rabbit's recovery hope it won't end up on that list.

Once Everywhere

New England cottontails used to be plentiful here. When many folks gave up farming, the young forests that grew offered perfect habitat for rabbits, Holman said. But as the forests matured and development increased, the dense, shrubby land disappeared. Soon the rabbits did, too.

Wildlife technician

Wildlife technician Tyler Mahard keeps tabs on cottontails in holding pen at Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The recovery effort in New Hampshire and five other Northeastern states focuses on creating habitat for the animals. The goal is to add 2,000 acres of NEC habitat here by 2030. And with 958 acres so far, they're ahead of schedule, Holman said.

But they still need more rabbits.

So Fish and Game and its partners, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have been working with Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, which has a captive breeding program.

For the past two years, biologists here have raised some of the zoo rabbits at the wildlife refuge and then released them into the wild. To date, 22 have been released.

The captive rabbits are known as the "founders," Holman explained, since the hope is that they'll start a successful breeding line. Inside the pen, she said, "They're given time to acclimate to an outdoor situation. It gives them the opportunity to start browsing on their own. And we measure them to make sure they're gaining weight."

Mahard, who recently earned his master's degree in wildlife and conservation biology at University of New Hampshire, checks on the captive rabbits weekly.

New Use

The National Wildlife Refuge is on land that used to be part of Pease Air Force Base. Mahard unlocks a gate near a sign reading: "Former Weapons Storage Area."

Barn swallows nest in a concrete bunker. Three great blue herons rise from a pond at Mahard's arrival; two ospreys nest atop a tall light pole nearby.

Inside the fenced enclosure, Mahard's telemetry antenna quickly picks up a signal transmitted from a radio collar attached to one of the three adult rabbits. Within a few minutes, he's picked up all three.

There used to be four.

A couple of weeks ago, Mahard's antenna picked up an ominously fast beep, a signal that the animal hadn't moved in 12 hours. He found the innards of the rabbit outside the fence, the collar nearby.

New England cottontail being released into habitat

A captive-reared New England cottontail is released into habitat.

The wildlife managers do their best to protect the captive rabbits: There's an electrified fence, and streamers are strung across the top to discourage raptors.

But that didn't stop what biologists believe was an owl from capturing one of the two female rabbits they were hoping would breed.

It's tough being a New England cottontail, Mahard said. "You have a high probability of being eaten." He added, “That's why they like to hang out in the thick shrubs."

This summer, Fish and Game will trap the adult rabbits and release them into the wild. If there are any young, they'll stay in the pen until they're big enough for radio collars, Holman said. For now, Fish and Game is relying on the captive breeding program to augment the existing populations of NEC, but they hope in time the rabbits will take care of things on their own, she said. "Our goal is to have 1,000 rabbits in the state of New Hampshire by 2030."

Stonyfield Farm was the first business to join the recovery effort here five years ago, managing 11 acres at its Londonderry site as NEC habitat.

Last fall, biologists returned to the property to see if they could find any cottontails. "We trapped eight rabbits in two days," Holman said. "That doesn't sound like a lot, but it is."

Why All This Effort to Protect One Species?

"The New England cottontail is a canary in the coal mine, a representative species of a type of habitat that has been missing on our landscape," Holman said.

NHFG biologist Heidi Holman with captive-bred cottontail

Biologist Heidi Holman holds New England cottontail.

Many other species will thrive in the same young forests created for cottontails, she said, including whippoorwills, warblers and Eastern towhee; and black racer and Eastern hognose snakes. Common species such as turkey and deer also will benefit.

Haley Andreozzi is the wildlife outreach coordinator at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. The agency offers technical assistance to landowners interested in managing their property for New England cottontails. They also train volunteers to plant shrubs in management areas in the spring, and to search for pellets and tracks in the winter.

Andreozzi said folks here feel an obligation to help the New England cottontail recover.

"It's a native species, and really, the significant portion of its decline can be attributed to human influences," she said. "So many people feel a sense of responsibility to help keep that species on the landscape."

Her agency has three goals when it comes to wildlife management, Holman said: "to keep common species common, to protect rare species and to prevent federal listing."

It's "more expensive and complicated" to manage a federally listed species, she said. "It would ultimately be better if, with all of these species, we were able to find a way to steward them with the people of New Hampshire instead of needing to have regulation," she said.

See more at: http://www.unionleader.com/article/20150531/NEWHAMPSHIRE03/150539954