Steps Taken to Protect Rare Rabbit in Rhode Island

By Cynthia Drummond of The Westerly Sun

PROVIDENCE — The New England cottontail, the region’s only native rabbit and the inspiration for the Thornton Burgess’s “The Adventures of Peter Cottontail,” has become so rare that there are just a few remnant populations in Rhode Island.

But a multiyear conservation plan involving the federal and several state governments, scientists, foresters, farmers and others is attempting to prevent the New England cottontail from disappearing altogether.

New England cottontail in Rhode Island

Biologist set to release radio-collared New England cottontail in Rhode Island habitat.

New England cottontails live in Connecticut, New York state east of the Hudson River, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management biologist Brian Tefft, who has been involved in the conservation effort, said that in Rhode Island, New England cottontails have been found in just four areas.

“There are two in North Kingstown, one in Narragansett and one in Charlestown,” Tefft said. “This is very rare — very, very, very low density, all tiny populations.”

The federal government announced in September that despite its decline almost to the point of extinction, the New England cottontail would not be added to the endangered species list. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said current conservation efforts had made the federal listing unnecessary.

“Thanks to the dedication of many partners, we can now say that future generations of Americans will know the cottontail — and not just through a character in children’s literature,” Jewell said.

New England cottontails have declined because they require young forest habitats with plenty of cover. Most young forests have been lost, either because they were developed, or because the trees matured.

“Habitat loss is considered to be the primary reason,” Tefft said. “It is complicated. Development and forest maturation, forests growing older over time, we’ve lost a lot of the farming activities and management activities such as timber-cutting and firewood-cutting on the scale that we had in the early 1900s.”

Another factor that has hastened the New England cottontail’s decline is the eastern cottontail rabbit, an introduced species that has proliferated to the point where it has become the scourge of gardeners everywhere. In 1930, thousands of eastern cottontails from Kansas, Missouri, Texas and other states were brought to Rhode Island by hunting clubs and released.


Prime cottontail habitat created on Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Rhode Island./C. Fergus

“All of these rabbits being released probably contributed to their hybrid vigor, which made them a better competitor and gave them an added advantage, since they occupy similar habitats to the New England cottontail,” Tefft explained.

“Although no one has come up with a smoking gun to say ‘these things are directly impacting the New England cottontails,’ we speculate that the combination of habitat loss and this very successful introduced species probably had caused this problem with New England cottontails.”

Launched in 2012, the New England cottontail conservation plan involves captive breeding and release, habitat improvements and public outreach. The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence has been breeding the rabbits since 2011, and some of them have been released on state-owned 200-acre Patience Island in Narragansett Bay, where there is plenty of brush to provide cover and no eastern cottontails to compete with.

Since March 2012, biologists have released 59 New England cottontails on Patience Island.

“We brought founders, which are basically wild rabbits from Connecticut, into captivity, the zoo paired them off and was successful in raising a number of offspring,” Tefft said. “Eleven of those offspring became the founders for the population on Patience Island. We bred them in 2011, there were 15 or so rabbits that were born that year. They overwintered at a holding pen in the Ninigret [National Wildlife] Refuge in Charlestown.”

Another partner in the conservation plan, University of Rhode Island’s conservation genetics laboratory, is helping researchers by analyzing fecal pellets to identify New England cottontails. Biologists traveled to Patience Island in March 2015 to collect fecal pellets so they could determine whether the transplanted rabbits were multiplying.

“We collected fecal pellets all over the island, and from that study, we determined that we have a baseline population that is a sustainable population established from the release of those 59 individuals,” Tefft said. “The population estimate on the island now is between 65 and 100 rabbits, so that’s good.”

The Patience Island population has grown to the point that researchers will be able to use some of those rabbits to repopulate other areas and lessen their reliance on captive bred animals.

“The game plan now is to begin translocating some of those animals to habitats that we’ve been preparing on the mainland,” Tefft said.

The New England cottontail conservation plan is scheduled to continue until 2030, and members of the public can help by providing access to land for population surveys so biologists can determine whether the rabbits are living there. Of particular interest are Narragansett, Charlestown, South Kingstown and to a lesser extent, Westerly.

Tefft said restoring New England cottontails was worth the effort and expense because the rabbit was part of the region’s heritage, and important to the ecosystem.

“Rabbits are important species for other wildlife,” he said. “They’re basically a prey animal, so we have not only an obligation to the rabbit, but for a healthy environment and for whatever other benefits these rabbits provide to the food web.”

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