Wildlife

Recovery: Second Chance for Yankee Cottontails

June 7, 2017

Zoo-bred New England cottontail being released. Photo © Tom Barnes / USFWS

Stunned but delighted is how Dr. Robert McDowell, Director of Wildlife at the University of Connecticut, sounded when I arrived at his office to learn about New England cottontail rabbits.

Finally someone other than himself was interested in these vanishing natives. We pored over skulls and skins and vainly patrolled early successional woods for live specimens. McDowell seethed about the mindset of state fish and game bureaucrats: we can’t waste time on a few native rabbits when we have so many look-a-like non-natives and when license buyers want more pheasants, ducks and deer.

The year was 1983.

The non-natives, called “eastern cottontails,” are a genetic mishmash of species and subspecies plucked from Minnesota, West Virginia, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. From the late 1800s to the early 1970s fish and game agencies in the Northeast permitted, encouraged and initiated stocking of these aliens. The result is a tough, adaptable mongrel imbued with hybrid vigor that outcompetes the fragile, specialized native.

In the field even biologists can’t tell an eastern cottontail from a New Englander, but under the skin they’re very different beasts, apparently incapable of hybridization. Easterns can make a living most anywhere, including the young forests on which New England cottontails depend and which, because of fire suppression and beaver-dam control, we’re running out of.

Thanks largely to people like McDowell and Dr. John Litvaitis, a wildlife professor at the University of New Hampshire, there has been a sea change in attitudes. Major funds started pouring in for habitat work when the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) got interested in New England cottontails. Now New York and every New England state (save Vermont where the species has been extirpated) is represented on a New England Cottontail Technical Committee. A state, federal and private partnership called the New England Cottontail Initiative is undertaking young-forest restoration rangewide. And rabbits are being raised for release at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, the Queens Zoo in New York, and Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire.

New England Cottontail release. Photo © Paul Fusco, CT DEEP

On December 14, 2016 America’s newest national wildlife refuge — the Great Thicket, taking in parts of all six New England cottontail states, was jump-started by a gift from The Nature Conservancy of its 144-acre Nellie Hill Preserve in Dover Plains, New York. In addition to native cottontails the refuge will provide habitat for dozens of other depressed young-forest-dependent species.

The New England cottontail had been a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, but on September 11, 2015 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing was not warranted because of all the recovery work.

I wish McDowell could have been with me and my wife Donna on May 17, 2017 when Wayne Woodard, director of The Nature Conservancy’s 1,900-acre Sunny Valley Preserve in Bridgewater, Connecticut, showed us the kind of work the partnership is doing.

Serenaded by bobolinks, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, American redstarts and red-winged blackbirds, Woodard, Donna and I hiked along meadows managed for grassland birds. In the distance unfurling leaves of mature hardwoods glowed chartreuse in full afternoon sun. Much of this forest, the bane of New England cottontails, is scheduled for clearcutting, but first the understory of invasive barberry needs to be removed. A year earlier a contractor had herbicided a 25-acre plot on the uphill (east) side of a stonewall because barberry seeds mostly by gravity. The contrast with the grossly infested west side was striking. “We had a 95-percent kill rate,” said Woodard. “We’ll go back and treat what’s left, then next winter we’ll do a clearcut.” Barberry on the west side of the stonewall is scheduled for herbiciding, too.

Much of the public reviles herbicides. But Woodard has done extensive outreach, so opposition is less intense here than at other sites. “By July first we’ll have cleared invasives from 70 acres,” he said. “We couldn’t possibly have done that without herbicides. It would have been like putting out a forest fire with a bucket brigade.”

Wayne Woodard by a Multiflora rose. Photo © Donna Williams

Multiflora rose is one invasive that Woodard has to leave until native shrubs get established. “Rabbits love it,” he said. “That’s what’s kept this abandoned farmland from reverting to forest.”

Deer densities in this part of the East are among the highest in the nation. Deer are spreading invasives, eating natives that provide thicket habitat for New England cottontails and eliminating ground-and shrub-nesting birds. So ten years ago the Conservancy opened the preserve to controlled deer hunting.

“With clearcuts,” explained Woodard, “we’re trying to replicate natural disasters like fires and hurricanes.” In another section of the preserve he showed us a recent clearcut that was strewn with tops and slash to serve as temporary rabbit cover and protection from deer browsing until native vegetation fills in. In nature the word “ugly” has no meaning.

Helping the Conservancy and other partners with habitat work has been Lisa Wahle, a WMI contract biologist working with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“Our biggest issue is people not wanting to cut trees,” she told me. “They’ve heard lots of drum beating about forest fragmentation from clearcuts; but we’re not doing clearcuts like on the West Coast. We started out asking for 25 acres, and quickly backed off that. The minimum patch that NRCS will pay for is six acres. But even six acres is a lot to ask for people who aren’t used to seeing clearcuts. Depending where they’re sited, there may be some initial fragmentation and perhaps cowbirds.”

But these cuts grow back lush and fast, and then they’re just roaring with shrubland species. Interior forest species use them too — it’s where the food is, she continues. “People I’d expect to be more tuned in to the value of occasional patches of young forest are still opposed. In northwest Connecticut there’s even a push for ‘forever wild’ status, which basically puts an easement on your property so you can’t manage it for anything — ever!”

New England cottontail habitat work at Avalonia Land Cosnervancy in Connecticut. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Paton, USFWS

But, like Woodard, Wahle and her colleagues are big on outreach. And, along with frustrations, she cites major successes with land trusts, sportsmen’s clubs and private landowners.

David Gumbart, who directs land management for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut, reports that New England cottontails have recently been documented on the Conservancy’s Lord Cove Preserve in Lyme. “Wherever we have them we invest in management,” he says.

Captive breeding has progressed to the point that New England cottontails are now being conditioned to the wild before release. When Donna and I inspected the rabbits being raised at the Roger Williams Park Zoo by conservation director Lou Perrotti we began to see a few of the subtle markings that distinguish them from the aliens. They were a bit darker and smaller. Ears were trimmed with fine, black fur and they lacked the white forehead spots common on easterns.

New England cottontail bred at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island. Photo © Lou Perrotti

These and other of the zoo’s rabbits have been released on Patience Island in Narragansett Bay. So robust is the population there that animals are being live trapped and sent to the new outdoor breeding facility at Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire and released in Rhode Island’s Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area.

Rabbits bred at the zoo have also been released at the Bellamy River Wildlife Management Area, biggest habitat restoration site in New Hampshire. When I caught up with manager Jim Oehler he and 87 volunteers had just planted 10,500 native shrubs. And he’s been clearcutting. Eventually 200 acres, nearly half the property, will be converted to young forest.

One thing New England cottontails have going for them is that the public considers them “cute,” an advantage many vanishing species — timber rattlesnakes, for example — lack. In addition to New England cottontails Lou Perrotti has been raising timber rattlers, more endangered in New England than any other species. This was part of a project by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to prevent extirpation by establishing a colony on an uninhabited island in the middle of the state’s sprawling Quabbin Reservoir.  No one gets bitten by these shy, reclusive snakes; they’re no more dangerous to humans than rabbits, and the island is off limits to the public. But last April, after years of patient education by the Division, snake haters shouted down the project.

For the most part, the American public has yet to grasp what McDowell and Litvaitis understood from the start and what fish and game bureaucrats have learned since 1983 — that imperiled species need to be saved not because they are “cute,” not because they are “beautiful,” not because they are useful, not because they are anything. Only because they are.

Amanda Cheeseman and a colleague process an eastern cottontail. Researchers trap cottontails to gather information and then safely release the rabbits. Photo courtesy of Amanda Cheeseman on New England Cottontail / Flickr
Ted Williams

Ted Williams detests baseball, but is as obsessed with fishing as was the "real" (or, as he much prefers, "late") Ted Williams. What he finds really discouraging is when readers meet him in person and still think he’s the frozen ballplayer. The surviving Ted writes full time on fish and wildlife issues. In addition to freelancing for national publications, he serves as Conservation Editor for Fly Rod & Reel where he contributes a regular feature-length column. More from Ted

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40 comments

  1. Lisa Wahle asked me to note that New England cottontail projects are largely funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

  2. The cotton tail rabbits here in Michigan seem plentiful and healthy- every yard has them. So is it a different species that is endangered?

    1. Hi Annis: Yes, the rabbits you see are most likely a mix of subspecies–the result of thoughtless stocking during the age of ecological unawareness. New England cottontails, while not officially “endangered,” are drastically depressed. They’re restricted to New England (except Vermont) and New York.

  3. We once had rabbits and quail and pheasants around here now just feral cats

  4. Very interesting column, Ted. Need more mention of Donna, however.

  5. This is awesome! Thank you for caring for these beautiful little creatures. So many “environmentalists” get upset over things they do not understand.

  6. Thank you for this update and info on the New England cottontail. i remember these as a child. We lived near swampy land and there were many of them. This was in Tilton, New Hampshire about 70 years ago when i would see them so often.

  7. Excellent article, and thanks for making it possible. I had no idea the “Yankee rabbits” were so distinct, and why it makes a difference to restore their habit in the midst of competition from hybrid animals. I’m surprised they’ve made it so far.
    We now have many similar issues now in “the West” (at least along Colorado’s central Front Range), and they seem more prominent in our local and regional news. Forest management ideas are changing, local residents are becoming a more concerned part of the equation, over-crowding has begun affecting land use, and human-induced habitat change and species modifications have integrated with local conservation / management issues.
    The West is becoming more like the East.

  8. Once they are gone, there’s no bringing them back. This is not only shameful but should be considered a crime.

  9. I am very glad that there are people who care enough to do all that they do to help the Rabbits.

  10. They may be imperiled and endangered but ya’ got to admit, those rabbits sure are cute!
    I did not know that timber rattlesnakes are not poisonous.
    Thanks for all the information. So much to learn, eh?
    Barbara Longmuir

    1. Not sure about not poisonous (Timber Rattlesnakes) but not aggressive and very reclusive, like most snakes that just want to be left to do their thing they were created to do in ecology. We just need to realize the value of preserving our ecology from ourselves!

  11. I’m glad to hear of all of your good works regarding all of these rabbits!

  12. Please help the Yankee Cottontail have their SECOND CHANCE. They sooooo deserve it.

  13. Give the Yankee CottontailRabbits a second chance, not only because they are cute, but the rabbits are vulnerable animal species that need our help.

  14. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!USWFS, SHAME ON YOU FOR NOT PROTECTING THESE SPECIAL YANKEES! PS, i got bitten by a eastern rattler 😉 I had boots on, Left clear FANG marks, had a good look at the rattle as it scurried away, and yes i am familiar with hognose snakes which looks similar but isnt

  15. All animals deserve our protection. They deserve to live and thrive just as much as do we. The fact that they fight extinction is because of us and the choices we have made as to the land we all share. The key word being, share. It is not fair to just wipe out a species of any living creature due to its “inconvenience” to mans greedy goals.

  16. SIGNED, SHARED AND SUPPORT FOR PROTECTION OF OURS ANIMALS ALL THE GOBERMENT, REPRESENTATIVES OF THE LAWS OF NATURE OF THE NATION’S.

  17. I live in VT and I want to know what I may do to help? I have had rabbit nests in my backyard, and I just love them.

  18. I have a mother and baby rabbit in my back yard now. I live in Shelton, CT. I believe my neighbor across the road has a few of them too. I’m hoping they stay and continue to live in the woods here. There’s lots of woods and as a matter of fact, I just had some trees taken down in the woods…glad to hear that that action will help these little animals survive and hopefully thrive. Thanks for your work.

  19. We are losing everything beautiful and sacred to this planet. It’s all become about the dollar. Donation are great but no one can afford them either with the government taking all that too.

  20. The use of herbicides is a travesty to the earths ecosystems. There is never an excuse to use that poison which contaminates soil, water sources, groundwater and endangers humans and wildlife. Those that use herbicides are putting themselves at risk for cancer, liver damage, Parkinson’s disease etc.
    If one cannot control so called invasive plants with manual removal then forget it.
    One is a complete fool to use herbicides and in doing so supports the toxic chemical industries
    that make these products.
    I have been a member of the nature conservancy for over 40 years and may now quit knowing that the conservancy condones the practice of herbicide use on their (our) properties.

    Sincerely
    Robert L James

  21. last week, 6/20/17, i saw a wild rabbit for the first time in 7 years. when we first moved to this rural area we’d see them often. also 10 to 7 years back we’d see pheasant, owls, bats, snakes, raccoons, skunks, red fox, coyotes, river otter, monarchs all of which have disappeared. the corporate media really isn’t doing it’s job pointing out that conservative policies are killing america! bee have been a sharp decline too. a swarm used to land in our yard to rest almost every spring as they looked for a location to set up a new colony. what we do have now in billions it seems is doves. what the heck are doves doing in the middle of wilderness? i don’t like them, the way they look and sound. i could listen to any other wild bird chip all day and night but doves seem like they don’t belong in the wilderness! seems like nature is out of balance!

  22. A lifelong resident of upstate New York, and outdoorsman in the Adirondacks, I never knew “we” had a native rabbit species. This article was enlightening because of that, and also the information about how hybridized cottontails gained strong footholds in our area, the description of “fighting conservationists to achieve conservation”, regarding the public’s opposition to all sorts of green science plans and projects.
    It was a shock to hear the timber rattlesnake is so threatened.
    On the extinction of species, I hold a more cosmic view. I realize that on the surface there is a correlation between humankind’s activities and all the species they affect, on a grand scale bolstered by these giant accursed brains, opposable thumbs, and the ability to manipulate everything but gravity. Still, keystone species such as beavers also bring “destruction” to an ecosystem, though on scale it’s more easily absorbed by the planet.
    The number of species that have lived and gone extinct on this planet exceeds by a huge factor the number of species that currently live on our globe. That’s mind-numbing.
    Extinction of species is a natural part of the whole order of the cosmos. Like clear-cutting and raising rattlesnakes, this is never likely to be understood by most, nor embraced. Sometimes I wonder if we are doing the right thing after all. I love and respect all forms of life, and their natural order. I wonder if our continued manipulation of such things will ultimately bring good, or future problems we are unable to anticipate or understand.
    Still, human nature calls us to take care of the things we have before us.
    And we have a tremendous amount of making up to do, to overcome the mistakes and damage of unenlightened generations before and current.

    We must be the voice for those that cannot speak for themselves.

    Sincerely,

    Scott R. O’Connor
    Sharon Springs, NY

  23. Robert James: I agree that there is never an excuse to “use poison which contaminates soil, water sources, groundwater and endangers humans and wildlife.” The point you are missing is that the herbicides TNC and other top wildlife restorers use to save species like the New England cottontail do none of these things. In the recovery of imperiled species there are always tradeoffs. I wish we didn’t ever have to use herbicides. But without them the battle to save native ecosystems is lost. The environmental damage herbicides do in native wildlife restoration is negligible. Frequently the choice is herbicide use or wildlife loss. I vote for the former.

  24. Thank you for the education. I had never heard of the New England cottontail until now. I appreciate your efforts to spread the word that open areas in the forest are more important for many species than deep woods. Most laymen do not understand that. I saw that also in Southern pine forests where the clear cut s provided grasses, berries and other plants that animals could eat. Few animals eat full grown trees!

  25. . I love the work you are doing. I am a disabled navy veteran of the Korean War and an artist and poet. None of my poems ever published. I have sold a few paintings (helps pay for art material). I sure would like to help what you do, but I have very little money. Could my artwork be of any help? I would donate it if you think it could help.

    -Paul Rickey, Jr.

  26. Hi Paul Rickey:
    Thanks much for your generous offer. For this column, however, we use just photos. Have you considered self-publishing your poems? It’s very hard to get a publisher to bite on poems; and if you get real lucky, they don’t spend money on publicity and then take at least 95 percent of the sales revenue. It costs a bit to self-publish, but then you get all the income. My uncle, Ed French, wrote some terrific poems, but never published one. When he died I took the best 150 and self-published them in the book “Bluets Stay True.” One of his poems was read before the New Hampshire legislature:

    Northern Counties
    by Edward L. French

    The further north you go
    The taller the trees
    The deeper the snow,
    The older the ways
    And sweeter the days.

    Snowshoes hung on the porch
    Along with the laundry line
    Telling secrets of who lives here,
    Their colors preferred and what they wear.

    Always the woodpile,
    Always the axe,
    Always the calloused hands.

    Always the hate of rules and tax,
    Always they fit these stony lands,
    Always stubborn but never late,
    For they were made of the Granite State.

  27. We enjoyed a large Family of cottontails for 3 Summers.After the hard Winter of 2015 they must have perished in the cold as they lived underground under our deck.Efforts to leave hay and treats they enjoyed went uneaten.I still have yet to see another cottontail and I’m in a very wooded,deer laden area away from the city.I was wondering if there has been a decline in observation in their numbers since that Winter.
    Sincerely,
    Debra Pinkham-Salt

  28. God piece, Ted! Have you read the one on Red Crossbills in High Country News?

  29. I have a little eastern cottontail in my yard/woods….his mother died a few weeks ago…he’s about 2-3 months old….he/she’s enjoying life – but I was wondering – is it possible for me to aquire a couple more so this little fellow could have company? I own 2 acres which abuts local conservation land. I have a barn which a lot of animals seem to love living underneath (the barn is lifted about 4 feet from the ground, so they all go underneath it). ..but again, wanted to get this little bunny some company. Any advice you’re able to give is most appreciate. Thank you,
    Sarah Carey, Shelton, CT