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Trail to Recovery: New Tool to Help Evaluate New England Cottontail Habitat

Posted by Melissa Martin on May 25, 2016 at 11:00 AM
The New England cottontail sits in the grass.

The New England cottontail is the region's only native rabbit. Photo courtesy of U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service.

When we at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and our partners work with landowners to restore habitat on working lands, we know it’s good for wildlife but we aren’t always sure just how good. But now we have a way to assess our success thanks to a new tool — the Habitat Suitability Index (HSI), which makes it possible for us to evaluate the quality of habitat created for the rare New England cottontail rabbit. 

What happened to the habitat?
Since the 1960s, the cottontail’s range has decreased by more than 80 percent. The decline is due to a number of factors, including development, aging forests, and a lack of fire and other disturbances. This is why NRCS, the New England Cottontail Technical Group and other conservation partners are restoring cottontail habitat by modifying forests, planting shrubs and removing invasive plants.

How does HSI work?
In 2012, with support from the USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project, NRCS partnered with the University of New Hampshire and others to develop the HSI, which measures five critical components of habitat to determine if managed lands are right for the rabbit. One component measured by the HSI is the abundance of dense understory vegetation that protects the rabbit from predators and weather extremes.

Working as an inter-agency team, the scientists who developed the HSI reviewed published literature, gathered on-the-ground data and collaborated with a panel of species experts to ensure that the final product would help guide conservation efforts.

Using the index is a multi-step process. A research scientist would evaluate the site, determine the areas in need of analysis, survey the land and then apply the HSI model, which when done, rates the overall quality of habitat.

Refining Conservation Efforts
The HSI enables us to accurately report on conservation successes and to fine-tune management strategies. “We know that many conservation lands will require additional management down the road, and the HSI can identify which habitat component will need attention,” said Don Keirstead, NRCS state resource conservationist for New Hampshire. Keirstead, co-author of the paper that unveiled the HSI, will work with partners and landowners to use the tool to guide efforts to restore and maintain New England cottontail habitats and populations in the years ahead.

Working Lands for Wildlife
The New England cottontail is one of the target species of NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership, which provides technical and financial assistance to landowners to voluntarily restore and improve habitat on their land. Since 2012, NRCS has worked with landowners to restore more than 7,700 acres of the rabbit’s habitat on private lands.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the achievements of collaborative habitat restoration projects like WLFW and determined that listing the New England cottontail under the Endangered Species Act is not currently needed.

Learn more about the HSI in “Science to Solutions” a series reports by NRCS that also includes information about wildlife conservation efforts through the Sage Grouse Initiative and the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative. Download the report here.

The Habitat Suitability Index helps scientists measure the quality of habitat for the New England cottontail.

Tags: New Hampshire, New England cottontail, Working Lands for Wildlife

categories Landscape Initiatives

2 response(s) to "Trail to Recovery: New Tool to Help Evaluate New England Cottontail Habitat"

Mila Paul says:

Looks like HSI is worth using. I would be interested to see how NEC habitat currently in use by the species compares with the index to places where the index is high and the species isn't there.

When will distribution maps of the index be available?

Dr P Brent Duncan says:

I would give credit to the original creators of HSI and HES methods.

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