Disappearing Rabbit Trick

New England Cottontail
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Reading the endangered wildlife list last month prompted a research mission to find out what the most threatened species might be in Massachusetts. I learned that the New England cottontail is very close to making the federal endangered list. In the summertime, I see rabbits galore on my early morning commute to work; one road in particular I have dubbed ‘bunny lane’, where I have to play dodge the rabbit! Therefore, it is surprising to consider rabbits as a threatened species, particularly with their reputation for prolific breeding.

In our region, we have two types of rabbits: the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) and the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). They are so similar that most people cannot tell them apart; the one we see in abundance is the Eastern cottontail, common across the United States. The New England cottontail, smaller than the Eastern, is disappearing. Its’ populations are declining, and their range has shrunk by more than seventy-five percent. In Vermont, its’ numbers are so greatly diminished, it can no longer be found, and New Hampshire added it to the state’s list of endangered species in 2008. Data provided by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that there was “substantial need for protection of the New England cottontail under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.” It was further determined that federal listing was warranted, however precluded due to other listing priorities; the rabbit remains listed as a special concern.

The New England cottontail prefers land in transition between field and forest, full of brambles and low bushes. Thickets were common on farmland and these rabbits once thrived, but much of New England now consists of mature forests, or developed land, which do not have the undergrowth that sustains and protects them. The Eastern cottontail population is strong because it is a hardier rabbit and lives on plants indicative of open land such as old fields and meadows. Part of any restoration project to save the rabbits might be getting private landowners to agree to cut their woodlands and let them turn into thickets. Halting the decline of scrub and brush land will be paramount to saving the New England cottontail; if it is not brought back, the region will lose a species native to no where else in the world!

Reported by Janice Stiles-Boults
©2009, April, New Marlborough 5 Village News

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