Statewide Young Forest Initiative to Help Cottontails, Other Wildlife
In New York, the New England cottontail occurs east of the Hudson River in areas of young forest and shrubland in parts of Columbia, Dutchess, Putnam, and Westchester counties. (Although once found in Rensselaer County, the species has not been detected there since the 1950s.)
New Hampshire Conservationists Cooperate to Help Cottontails
New England cottontail numbers have fallen for several decades in New Hampshire. The presence of the introduced eastern cottontail – very difficult to distinguish from the New England cottontail – has masked the plight of the state’s native rabbit.
Natural and Human-Created Disturbances Make Rabbit Habitat
New England cottontails live in several different types of habitat in the Bay State. In southeastern Massachusetts, including Cape Cod, they inhabit pitch pine-scrub oak woodlands growing on the dry, sandy soils of that region. In southwestern Massachusetts, they live in young forest in upland areas and in wetlands with dense shrubs.
Described as plentiful in southern Maine in the mid-1900s, today the New England cottontail holds on in less than 15 percent of its former range in the state. Forests have matured, and now interlocking tree canopies shade out the 5- to 15-foot-tall thickets that once provided rabbits with abundant hiding spots and food during Maine’s long winters.
New England cottontails were once abundant throughout southern Rhode Island west of Narragansett Bay, but their numbers plummeted as young forest and shrubland dwindled in the state. Habitat was lost through natural forest maturation (cottontails don’t live in older woodlands) and to residential and commercial development. In recent years, biologists have found evidence of four small populations.
The fact that Connecticut still has widely distributed populations of New England cottontails signals that there is a fair amount of habitat remaining in the state. However, conservationists aren't taking this situation for granted.
Farmington River Wildlife Management Area straddles the border between the southwestern Massachusetts towns of Otis and Becket. It’s the largest landholding owned and managed by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) in the Southern Berkshire Focus Area for New England cottontail restoration.
Light-loving trees and shrubs, a suite of songbirds, ruffed grouse, deer, black bears – and, conservationists hope, eventually New England cottontails – should all benefit from timber harvests begun in 2014 on Monterey Preservation Land Trust’s 383-acre Mount Hunger property in Berkshire County, western Massachusetts.
Land Trust’s Role Includes Actively Managing Habitat
“We know the population of the New England cottontail rabbit has fallen rangewide,” says Gary Casabona, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) biologist based in Warwick, R.I. “Here in Rhode Island, the species’ decline has been especially dramatic. It’s also been hard to quantify, thanks to a lookalike rabbit, the eastern cottontail, that’s also found across the state.”