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How Scientists Are Trying to Save New England’s Rare Rabbits

How Scientists Are Trying to Save New England’s Rare Rabbits

Even though rabbits have a solid reputation for being prolific breeders, New England cottontails have been slowly disappearing from the landscape for decades. Now they’re in danger of disappearing entirely from some of the last places they can be found in Maine and New Hampshire.

They’re currently listed as endangered species in both states, while they’re waiting as candidates for needed protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In a study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, scientists with the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES) have found that over the last decade their populations have become even more isolated while their range has contracted by 50 percent.

The greatest cause for their decline has been habitat loss and fragmentation, which has been caused by maturing forests, development or naturally unsuitable habitat. These rabbits are known as habitat specialists, who rely on thicketed habitats made of shrubs and small trees that offer cover and protection from predators. Researchers believe restoring these types of habitats is the key to keeping these rare rabbits from going extinct.

“The New England cottontail is a species of great conservation concern in the Northeast. This is our only native rabbit and is an integral component of the native New England wildlife. Maintaining biodiversity gives resilience to our landscape and ecosystems,” said NHAES researcher Adrienne Kovach, research associate professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire.

To find out where these rabbits are, where they’re traveling to and how their genes are being spread, researchers studied DNA samples that were collected from the droppings of 157 rabbits in southern Maine and along the coast of New Hampshire between 2007 and 2009.

While they discovered their habitat is shrinking, and their populations are separated by distance and blocked by major highways and rivers, they also found that certain man-made landscapes, including the edges of railroads and roads, along with powerline rights-of-way, have provided a preferred habitat for these rabbits and have created important corridors for them to travel along. These corridors are critical for their dispersal, which helps keep them from competing for resources and suffering from the effects of inbreeding. They also concluded that underpasses and culverts, could be effective in helping these rabbits move across major highways.

The researchers now hope that getting wildlife managers and conservation efforts focused on protecting and restoring these landscapes will help New England cottontails recover, in addition to helping dozens of other species from birds and small mammals to reptiles who also rely on thicketed habitats.

“If we can restore more of this habitat in our landscape and work on creating a landscape that has a mosaic of different habitats, including mature forests and young forests, we know that it is going to help a lot of species,” said Kovach.

For more info about efforts to help New England cottontails, visit NewEnglandCottontail.org.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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155 comments

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3:46PM PDT on Aug 11, 2014

Thank you.

8:35PM PDT on Aug 6, 2014

Jonathon Y.--

I live in western Mass. We have a tribe of NE cottontails who have been with us for three years now. We are next to the Conn. R., and the railroad has a brush covered right of way next to the river. We maintain a "natural" yard (1/4 acre) with a dense hedge, a brush pile. lots of low shrubbery, no chems on the grassy areas, and a constant water source (the groundwater from the sump, pumped into a 1/2 barrel and aerated).

We had to raise our vegetable garden beds, but it was worth it.

7:49PM PDT on Aug 6, 2014

Thanks for link.

It does say that creating new habitat for this species involves creating young forest by timber harvesting.

As long as it's done sustainably I'm ok with it, but it does look a little controversial.

6:43PM PDT on Aug 4, 2014

ty

10:09AM PDT on Aug 3, 2014

Encore un animal en voie de disparition à cause de l' homme. Mais y a t-il un seul animal dans le monde qui ne soit pas en voie de disparition ???? Non, hélas.....à part les espèces invasives qui détruisent l' environnement où ils ne devraient pas vivre.....à cause de l' homme : encore. Pfff.

1:38AM PDT on Aug 1, 2014

I would like to thank all Care2 members who already signed my petition.
if no, please help give an happy end to that sad story :
1) Care 2
2) PeticaoPublica.com

But unfortunately this is still not the end of the sufferings for those animals. This Monday 28th july a stray horse was hit by a car and was euthanized due to an open fracture. link : Tribuna de Petropolis
As some people of the city and from the neighborhoods, took them to a sanctuary*, the hope is rising, it's up to you to make it grow by still sharing the petitions. I will tell you more about the sanctuary in the next update...

Thank you for caring

2:09PM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

That we can even talk about the species that are dying is a movement forward. All life is scared. How we humans deal with it is one of our lessons here in this time / space continuum.

3:25PM PDT on Jul 29, 2014

Klem K~~

Is your tongue in your cheek? When did the Audubon Society ever "clear cut" a forest?

7:45AM PDT on Jul 29, 2014

The major factor for NEC decline is the expanding range of the eastern cottontail, which is a better competitor. So what these agencies and the Audubon are doing is clearcutting our forests - for a rabbit that is losing against EC and whose new habitat will be occupied by EC. Furthermore, the desired population size for NEC is based on New England as an agricultural landscape when it is a naturally forested landscape. So now we have to fight the NEC program as well as sprawl and fragmentation as grant-hungry state wildlife agencies, Audubon, and others wipe out vast areas of forest. Absolutely stunning idiocy.

12:36AM PDT on Jul 29, 2014

Thank you!

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