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News Release

USDA releases three-year strategy to help New England cottontail

Diane Baedeker Petit, Public Affairs Officer
413-253-4371, cell 413-835-1276

A New England Cottontail rabbitt.

USDA, private partners to restore 1,700 acres of young forests in six New England states

AMHERST, Mass., July 19, 2016 – USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has released a new three-year conservation strategy to help restore declining young forest habitat in the Northeast, part of an ongoing effort to help the region’s only native rabbit and more than 60 other species. The New England cottontail relies on young forests for survival, and private landowners are working with NRCS to manage forests in a way that benefits the at-risk species.

By the end of 2018, this science-based strategy for Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) aims to conserve an additional 1,700 acres of young forests, or early successional habitat, which will bring the total amount of habitat restored since 2012 to about 4,200 acres.

“When it comes to a healthy landscape, diversity is key,” said Christine Clarke, NRCS State Conservationist in Massachusetts. “In much of the East, young forests are uncommon, and this decline is having negative impacts on wildlife. We’re working with landowners who want to manage forests in a way that is mutually beneficial to their operations, the New England cottontail and many other species that depend on early successional habitats.”

The Northeast’s forests have changed over the past 50 years as older forests have come to dominate huge expanses of the eastern United States. Both game and non-game species that rely on young forests are in decline, including the New England cottontail. This major shift in the age classes of forests is the result of a lack of fires that occurred historically, plus forest management practices that do not support healthy and diverse habitats.

The loss of early successional habitat is the primary threat to the New England cottontail. Since 2012, NRCS has worked with more than 130 landowners in six states, including Massachusetts, to conserve habitat through the agency’s WLFW partnership.

To best support wildlife diversity and the timber industry, both biologists and foresters recommend an “even age-class distribution” of forest types across landscapes – meaning there should be relatively equal amounts of young and old forests. Through WLFW, NRCS provides landowners with technical and financial assistance to adopt forest management practices that increase forest diversity and available early successional habitat.

Through this strategy, NRCS is directing resources to where they can net the highest biological returns. In Massachusetts, the strategy will focus on the use of prescribed fire to restore forests dominated by pitch pine and scrub oak; and in the hardwood forest types, targeting efforts on forests with low quality timber and little diversity.

Because of fire suppression, pitch pine scrub oak forests in Massachusetts have changed in character, exhibiting more of a closed canopy structure, which shades understory plants that the New England Cottontail needs. NRCS works with landowner to thin trees to reduce the fuel load, create fire breaks and conduct prescribed burning.

In the hardwood forest types, NRCS works with landowners to remove 70 to 90 percent of the forest canopy which will spark a rapid response by the understory shrubs and regenerating trees thus creating the thicket habitat preferred by NEC. 

Habitat restored for the New England cottontail benefits many other species, including declining bird species such as American Woodcock, Eastern towhee, prairie warbler, and declining reptiles such as black racer and Eastern box turtle. In New England and the Mid-Atlantic, two-thirds of young forest bird species experienced significant population declines between 1966 and 2010. Establishment of early successional habitats supports these declining bird populations, and also attracts many game species like, wild turkey, deer, moose, bear and ruffed grouse.

WLFW and other partnership efforts to promote habitat restoration on private and public lands are working. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined protections for the New England cottontail under the Endangered Species Act were not needed largely because of collaborative efforts to conserve habitat on public and private lands. The cottontail is one of many species to rebound or recover from conservation efforts on private lands; others include the Oregon chub, Arctic grayling, greater sage-grouse, Bi-State sage-grouse and Louisiana black bear.

Click here to download the strategy and learn more about NRCS’ work with the New England cottontail.  To learn more about assistance opportunities, landowners should contact their local USDA service center.