Partners Plant Shrubs to Help Maine Cottontails

By Eric Hoar, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area is a 3,100-acre collection of parcels in the towns of Scarborough and Old Orchard Beach. It’s also a focus of habitat enhancement for the state-endangered New England cottontail rabbit. Portions of the WMA consist of old farm fields with pockets of dense shrubs; other areas remain as grasslands. With the help of several partners, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has launched a planting project to make the WMA a better habitat for cottontails.

live stake planted in Maine

Live alder stake planted at Scarborough Marsh has begun sending out branches and leaves.

Boy Scout Troop 41 of Portland helped with the work, which included planting “live stakes,” basically branch-free, rootless sticks from native shrubs. Planting is simple: insert the stakes into the ground, where they’ll take root and grow into shrubs that ultimately will provide better food and cover for cottontails and a range of other wildlife. Few shrubs will reliably grow this way, but common native (as opposed to non-native invasive) examples include alder, willow and dogwood.

Scarborough Marsh WMA is in a designated focal area for conserving the New England cottontail. The cottontail is Maine's only native rabbit, and the species’ population has dwindled significantly over the last 50 years, as habitat has been lost to development and abandoned fields have grown up to become forest where cottontails can’t live. Also, humans have not been active in creating much new young forest habitat in southern Maine, since timber harvesting activities have declined in recent years.

Unlike snowshoe hares, New England cottontails don't turn white in the winter. So when snow covers the ground, the rabbits become highly visible to predators like hawks, eagles, foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. To survive winter, cottontails need dense, shrubby habitat for concealment from predators, and also to browse on for food.

This spring, the live stake planting at Scarborough used alder shrubs. Approximately 300 alder stakes had been harvested over the winter by the scouts, led by Aaron Hoekstra as part of a final project in his quest to become an Eagle Scout. The stakes were placed in cold storage until April and then planted by Aaron and his fellow scouts over the span of three hours.

Biologists with Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife helped out by planting additional cover vegetation at Scarborough Marsh, including arrowwood, swamp azalea, two species of native dogwood, and gray birch.

planting shrubs at Scarborough Marsh WMA

Biologists plant live shrubs to improve habitat for New England cottontails at Scarborough Marsh WMA.

Last fall, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife partnered with the Wildlife Management Institute and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge to grow 2,000 to 3,000 shrubs for planting as part of a plan developed by First Light Wildlife Habitats. The plan takes into account New England cottontail cover and food requirements, plus soil types. A large portion of these shrubs will be planted this coming fall with the remainder to follow next spring.

Earlier in 2017, Rachel Carson NWR offered several hundred additional shrubs left over from projects they had engaged in the previous year. IF&W and Rachel Carson staff gathered at Scarborough in May and planted those shrubs. Two members of the Maine Forest Service were on hand as part of a training and equipment deployment exercise; they helped get some of the shrubs into the ground, then watered the shrubs following planting. The result was 375 new shrubs and small trees planted over the course of seven hours by 10 members representing three conservation agencies.

The New England cottontail restoration effort in Maine and New England is relatively young and, as with most habitat-oriented projects, is expected to take several years to develop.

Adequate hiding cover in winter, a season when most shrubs have dropped their leaves, is extremely important for re-establishing a healthy rabbit population in Maine. Today, the New England cottontail population is critically low. Populations require time to increase and expand, through both reproduction and dispersal, even in areas where habitat has been enhanced or created.

Scarborough Marsh WMA is one of only a few wildlife management areas managed by Inland Fisheries and Wildlife within dispersal distance of existing New England cottontail populations. For this reason, it’s critically important that we improve it so that it can become as good of a home for cottontails as possible.