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Often confused with the Eastern cottontail (an introduced, non-native species), the New England cottontail is the only rabbit native to the Northeast. Once common – and widespread – across New England and New York (only east of the Hudson River, so very little of the state), the cottontail’s range has decreased by a disheartening 86% over the past 50 years, mainly due to habitat loss. It’s now restricted to small, isolated populations in parts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeastern New York. Here in Massachusetts, the cottontail is mostly limited to Cape Cod.
In 2006, the New England cottontail was identified as a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection. Without a major conservation effort, this species faces possible extinction. In response, regional initiatives have been launched – with the aid of new funding sources – to help reverse the decline of the New England cottontail by increasing the amount of early successional habitat (young forests) across their range.
This Mashpee project will improve habitat on 50 acres by reducing tree cover to encourage the dense regeneration of shrubs, saplings, and vines: the kind of cozy environment preferred by cottontails. Increasing the growth of understory vegetation will create a safe environment where the rabbits can find food, rear their young, and escape predators. Forest thinning equipment has been onsite since February and the project is scheduled to be completed by the end of March but may take a bit longer, depending on weather conditions.
In addition to enhancing habitat for New England cottontails, this work at Mashpee River Reservation will benefit a number of other species including: black racer, hognose snake, box turtle, ruffed grouse, bobwhite, prairie warbler, Eastern towhee, woodcock, field sparrow, brown thrasher, blue-winged warbler, gray catbird, oak hairstreak, and many native pollinators.
Russ Hopping, Ecology Program Manager at The Trustees, says "This project is exciting because it will benefit a true New England native in need of help, as well as many other species that are in decline. When the project is completed, it will also allow trail access to an area that wasn't open to the public in the past. Visitors will be able to watch the habitat respond to our management, and perhaps even get a glimpse of the cottontails in their new habitat."
Published March 2013