By Beth Sullivan
Since 2013 I have been writing about our New England Cottontail project on Avalonia’s Peck and Callahan preserves in Stonington. Not accessible to the public, people have had to rely on written reports and photos to follow the progress.
|We have laid out the welcome mat. Now we wait. Photo from USFWS.
New England Cotton Tail returns
The New England Cottontail was determined to be in danger of needing Federal protection due to plummeting populations. They are out-competed by the non-native Eastern Cottontail that is highly adaptable to living near people and our homes and gardens. The New England Cottontail (NEC) needs shrubby, overgrown thickets of dense brush, of the kind found decades ago when farm fields were abandoned and were overgrown. Once the fields progressed into forests which are now abundant in our state, the NEC had less desirable places to live, they didn’t breed successfully (like rabbits are supposed to do) and thus the population dropped.
Studying the problem, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined it would be far better to try and stabilize the population, create habitat, rather than allow it to further decline and need federally mandated protection. Since 2012, we worked with USFWS, CT DEEP and the Wildlife Management Institute to help create a big block of habitat up in the woods between Pequot trail and Route 184.
|Last year this area was low and sparse. Now perfect habitat.
Last week representatives from several federal agencies and teams from New England States met in New Hampshire to celebrate a success story. Because of all the efforts to study and restore habitat in focus areas throughout New England, it was determined that the NEC did not need to be placed on the Endangered Species List.
|Plentiful berries of several species provide food.
The next question seems to be: Why is that a good thing: don’t they still need protection?
The NEC will continue to need protection and monitored to make sure all the work done to create habitat is successful in having the rabbits move in and thrive. Studies will continue over the next years as the project areas regrow into the young forest habitat they need. Teams will go out in the winter when the ground is covered to collect rabbit pellets to check for DNA confirmation of NEC presence. THAT will be success! Then plans can be made to continue to work with this habitat management system, keeping it in rotation of optimal size and level of growth, and work with other land owners to provide more of the same.
|Under the powerlines, the habitat is dense and thick.
If the New England Cottontail had been placed on the Endangered Species list, there would have been a huge, bureaucratic need to install protections on large territories where the rabbits might be located and restrictions placed on areas where they are found. Private landowners could lose the choice of being able to create habitat or not, to develop their land, or not. The expense to list and then protect a species far outweighs the money spent to provide what it needs to keep it off the list.
|A large Black Rat Snake probably finds many small mammals to eat.
The added benefit of the work, is that there are a number of other species, about 50 in CT alone that benefit from the newly created habitat. Some of them were heading toward that E-List themselves.
Since our project was completed in August of 2013, we have visited a number of times. The area is almost impossible to walk through: Excellent for rabbits. Berry bushes cover the ground providing fruit for all manner of animals. It is teeming with more wildlife than ever before. We have counted new birds, noted many new insects in great numbers, and reptiles and amphibians as well.
|Walking through the preserve in no longer easy.
On behalf of a special bunny, we are all grateful for funding by Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Long Island Sound Futures fund (LISFF), the efforts of the USFWS, CT DEEP and those supporters who had the vision to proceed with the project.
We will keep you posted.
Link to The Day article on the NEC is here.
Photographs by Beth Sullivan unless otherwise indicated.