Rabbits Released on Small Island Near Martha’s Vineyard

By Ethan Genter, Cape Cod Times

For decades the federal government dropped bombs on Nomans Land. These days, it is dropping off something a little fluffier on the small island off the coast of Aquinnah: bunnies.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials ferried 13 New England cottontails through Vineyard Sound and released them on the 628-acre island wildlife refuge, which was once a naval bombing site.

Biologist holding New England cottontail

Wildlife biologist holds New England cottontail./L. Perrotti

The island lives up to its name and is closed to the public because unexploded ordnance is still around from its bombing-target practice days. It now belongs to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and is the newest home to New England’s only native cottontail.

Although not a federally endangered species, the cottontail population found throughout southern New England has been struggling. Officials hope the Nomans Land release will help turn that tide.

“New England cottontail have been in decline due to habitat fragmentation and alteration through development,” said Eileen McGourty, a wildlife biologist with the service. “Nomans Land Island is great for New England cottontail because there are no mammalian predators out here. It is also land that won’t be developed.”

McGourty said she hopes the 13 bunnies released Tuesday on Nomans Land — an effort years in the making — will help rebuild the population and perhaps even one day help supplement numbers on the mainland.

The rabbits thrive in dense thickets of young forests, shrublands and coastal barrens. Over the decades, those types of habitats have been dwindling. Younger forests are destroyed by development and the remaining wooded areas grow tall and mature — the exact type of home the New England cottontail is not interested in. But Nomans Land, covered in shrub save for a handful of ponds and the beachfront, is perfect for the rabbits.

“They need that dense thick habitat,” said T.J. McGreevy, director of the Wildlife Genetics and Ecology Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island.

The lucky 13, five females and eight males, that the service brought to the island were caught in the Mashpee/Barnstable area by John Garofoli with the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game. The rabbits rode out the waves to Nomans Land in wooden boxes. Each had its own compartment, with up to five rabbits in a box. Once on the island, Service employees carried the boxes toward the middle of the island, and released the cottontails one by one.

Some seemed nervous, staying put until a helping hand shooed them out of the box. Others bounded away quickly into the shrubland.

“They look like they are at home,” said McGourty.

Garofoli, who is also a firefighter in West Barnstable, trapped the rabbits over three weeks in the winter, pulling them in with apples and apple cider. Before their journey to the bomb-riddled island, the rabbits went to Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, where the students took care of them.

McGreevy took tissue from the rabbits’ ears to perform genetic tests to ensure the rabbits were pure New England cottontails. In a few isolated instances, New England cottontails have interbred with the Eastern cottontail, a species found abundantly throughout the region that, to the average person, looks similar to the New England cottontail.

The Nomans Land project mirrors an effort on Patience Island in Narragansett Bay. Since 2012, when about 17 cottontails were dropped off on Patience Island, the population there has grown to about 60 to 70 rabbits.

Nomans Land, with no mammalian predators, could support as many as 600 cottontails, McGourty said.

The service plans to continue to bring rabbits out to the island and will try to track the movements of the ones they dropped off on Tuesday. Ten of the rabbits were outfitted with GPS collars, so wildlife officials can keep tabs on their dispersal and lifespan.

McGreevy said he hopes to be able to tell how the rabbits multiply through their droppings. He has tested fecal samples of the original 13 and would be able to determine if other samples collected were from those first rabbits or their offspring.

Officials still find unexploded bombs on Nomans Land after the Service began ridding the island of thousands of pounds of ordnance in the 1990s. At that time, it set a fire and burned about 40 percent of the island in order to clear away the thick brush.

It is believed that the rabbits, weighing in at about two pounds, are not in harm’s way.

The Nomans Land work is a critical part of keeping the population up, McGourty said.

“Even though it’s an island, it still has an important part to play in the conservation of the rabbit species,” she said. “They are an important part of the ecosystem.”

(To view a photo gallery, view the article in Cape Cod Times)