The New England cottontail was once so common that Massachusetts author Thornton Burgess adapted one named Peter for the children’s stories he penned a century ago. But the critter that inspired “The Adventures of Peter Cottontail” and the enduring song that came later faces an uncertain future. Its natural habitat is disappearing, and without intervention, it could be unhappy trails for the once-bountiful bunny.
Conservationists hope a new program to restore shrub lands across the Northeast and captive breeding efforts will help ensure the New England cottontail sticks around for many Easters to come.
“We’re making headway, putting habitat on the ground in some really key places,” said Anthony Tur, an endangered species specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s encouraging.”
New England cottontails were abundant a century ago, thriving in an environment of shrubs, saplings, weeds and vines known as young forest. But in an uncommon turn of events, it is declining human activity to blame for its lost habitat – not urban sprawl. As neglected agricultural lands reverted back to forest and those forests matured, the population of New England cottontails thinned. More than 80 percent of their habitat disappeared over the past 50 years, according to the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute.
And now conservationists are trying to prevent the New England cottontail from appearing on the endangered species list, a designation that would require a more urgent – and costly – response that could restrict land use and hunting. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Resources Conservation Service are working with landowners and zoos to restore natural habitat and use captive breeding to rebuild the population.
The government has been conducting habitat management and restoration projects for several years in collaboration with private landowners, land trusts and a few Native American tribes as they try to bring back the New England cottontail.
The New England cottontail is the only rabbit species native to the region east of the Hudson River. And while it has struggled to deal with the changing landscape, a slightly larger cousin has thrived.
Imported to the region for hunting in the early 20th century, the Eastern cottontail has larger eyes that have enabled it to avoid predators better. It multiplied steadily and is now the dominant species in the Northeast, often popping up on roadsides and in gardens.
For conservationists, protecting the New England cottontail from extinction is worthy in and of itself. But habitat restoration also benefits the dozens of other species that thrive in shrub lands, including songbirds, snakes, deer and turkey.
Tom McAvoy, a landowner in Scotland, Conn., was approached by Fish and Wildlife officials in 2011 about restoring his land to help the New England cottontail make a comeback. Inactive for the past 60 years, the former dairy farm was overgrown with invasive plants that prevented ground vegetation from thriving.
He is now opening up portions of dense forest on his land and planting indigenous shrubs on what he now callsCottontail Farm. The project’s scope is five years, but he said he wants to maintain it beyond that as “a legacy” for his family.
“My brother and sons have been involved in the project,” McAvoy said. “It’s important for me to teach my grandchildren as well, and keeping them active and involved in the stewardship of the land.”
He lamented that a lot of farmland in the area is overgrown and unmanaged.
“I don’t think many of us are aware until we get active and involved,” he said. “I certainly was not until I got involved.”
The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island began breeding the New England cottontail in captivity two years ago. Officials there have already released 38 young rabbits tagged with radio collars into restored habitats in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. They expect to release 100 more later this year.
“It’s a conservation priority in our region,” said Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at the zoo, “so we’re happy to be a part of it and will remain committed.”
He said the New England cottontail had not previously been bred in captivity, so his staff is “writing the book on husbandry and reproduction of the species.”
At a certain point, Perrotti said, the success of conservation efforts comes down to the creatures themselves.
“The old adage ‘they breed like rabbits,’” he said, “doesn’t always apply.”
Kalin reported from Hartford, Conn.