Over the past few decades, Maine’s only native rabbit, the New England Cottontail has experienced major population declines. Historically, the Cottontail’s range included eastern New York, all of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, southern parts of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. This range has decreased by about 86% since 1960. Today, the remaining Cottontails are found in only five small, disconnected populations within the historic range. The New England Cottontail is listed as endangered in Maine and New Hampshire and is under consideration for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act. In Maine, current estimates place the New England Cottontail population at about 250-300 individuals.
The Cottontail’s decline is due to the fact that it is a habitat specialist. New England Cottontails need young forests and shrublands for food and cover. The reforestation of New England over the past century combined with development has been the biggest cause of habitat loss/fragmentation and population decline. The Cottontail thrived when disturbances, such as beaver activity, storms, wildfires, and agricultural land-clearing were more common. Within 10 to 25 years after such an event, these areas would become prime habitat for the rabbits as shrub thicket and young forest was generated. Nowadays, natural disturbances like these are suppressed as a part of human development.
Although New England Cottontail populations have a long road to recovery, a lot is being done to help them out. In fact, at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, work to rehabilitate the New England Cottontail is a year round affair. This includes removing mature trees, creating brush piles, planting native shrubs, controlling invasive plants, and more.
During the winter months, refuge employees seek out suitable habitat and attempt to find signs of Cottontails in the snow. The best time to find Cottontail tracks is a day after a snow fall. In addition to tracks, other signs include twigs gnawed at a 45° angle and brown pellet-shaped droppings which stand out in contrast to the snow. In the spring and summer, Maine’s New England cottontail restoration coordinator, Kelly Boland, meets with landowners and discusses plans to convert land to early successional forest or thicket habitats. Spring is also the time to work in the refuge greenhouse to propagate and grow native shrubs to plant in areas to rebuild and sustain shrubland habitat. In the fall the plants grown in the greenhouse are planted in fields or other suitable sites.
For More information on the New England Cottontail please visit:
This article was written and prepared by:
Liz Deletetsky: AmeriCorps Member and MCC Environmental Steward at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
Greg Mulcahy: AmeriCorps Member and MCC Environmental Steward at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge
Thanks to Tom Barnes and Kelly Boland who provided photographs.
Currently the Maine Conservation Corps has two Environmental Stewards at the Refuge. The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge hosts volunteer events on the third Friday of every month and our Stewards are active participants. If you’re interested in volunteering, please feel free to contact, Dylan Cookson, at Dylan.Cookson@maine.gov or call me at 207-624-6092.