Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Big Project for a Little Bunny

If you live in SE CT, you may remember reading articles about local projects to restore habitat for the New England Cottontail (NEC) . From Voluntown and Pachaug Forest, to a North Stonington Sportsmen’s club, this little rabbit is having an impact….and now on Avalonia in Stonington as well.
These rabbits are not the commonly seen lawn bunnies which are the non-native Eastern Cottontail. 

YouTube video of the New England Cottontail Rabbit.

The rabbits in the news are our native ones and, due to competition and loss of habitat, they are candidates for being listed as endangered. As Connecticut has aged, farmlands reverted to shrublands which the rabbits liked. However, further age has turned the shrublands into forests, and the forested landscape does not provide the food and shelter necessary for the NEC. An impenetrable tangle of low growth, briers and vines that deter our visits, is precisely what the Cottontails need.
Many State (DEEP), Federal(USFWS, USDA & NRCS) and local (Avalonia LandConservancy) agencies have come together to support and fund a project on the Peck and Callahan Preserves in the northern portion of Stonington. These lands are deep in the center of a core of mature forests, and until now, have been barely thought about and were not accessible to the public because of their location. A population of the NEC has been located not far from these preserves, which are also intersected by a power line that, when cut to provide access and maintenance of the lines, also creates the shrub and young forest habitat needed by the rabbit.

Map of New England Cottontail Restoration Focus Areas.

It has been over a year since the project began as an idea, then a plan, and finally a collaboration. Many countless hours were spent on the ground to survey and study the area, to measure and mark boundaries, buffer and protect wetlands, and to untangle the funding web. We are almost ready to begin the active phase. In order to create NEC habitat, trees will have to be cut. A certified harvester will begin in mid-April to create a shelter-wood cutting. Some trees of high value for wildlife will be left standing; the rest will be removed and large brush piles will be created. In just months, stumps will sprout. Sun will reach the ground, and new shrubs and fruiting plants and berry bushes and brier vines will begin to take over and thus provide an open invitation to the rabbits to move into the area and find what they need to establish a population: food and shelter.

It is not just the rabbits, though, that we seek to support. The new habitat will support over 47 other species of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians that rely on the same conditions. Over the next years we, and other scientists, will visit the site, monitor plant growth, and record wildlife sightings.
We will continue to post about the progress of the project and provide photos and updates as we move forward. “Stay Tuned” for more!

Written by Beth Sullivan.
Find out more about the New England Cottontail Rabbit

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