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A Bunny Tale: Working Together for the New England Cottontail on Cape Cod

Conservation Showcase

Watch the videos below to see and hear more about these projects.


 

New England Cottontail logoCape Cod’s beautiful seashore, inlets and coves, salt marshes and woodlands are a natural draw for year-round and vacation home owners, and tourists. The associated development is a boon for the local economy but not so good for a small, furry and quite elusive little creature: the New England Cottontail rabbit. And that has some folks quite concerned because habitat loss has New England’s only native rabbit on the brink of being federally listed as endangered.

So, private landowners, conservation groups, a tribe and government agencies have joined forces to protect and restore New England Cottontail habitat throughout New England. In the Cape Cod town of Mashpee, Massachusetts, habitat restoration work began at three sites just a couple of years ago and results are already being seen.

A New England Cottontail rabbit.
A New England Cottontail rabbit (photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

All together, the three landowners are restoring nearly 100 acres of New England Cottontail habitat. Since the three sites – owned, respectively by The Trustees of Reservations, the Orenda Wildlife Land Trust and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe – are adjacent to each other, the conservation benefits are greater.

Funding and technical assistance for the projects were provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the departments’ Working Lands for Wildlife partnership. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (a.k.a MassWildlife) also provided technical assistance.

(left to right) Russ Hopping, Chuckie Green and Liz Lewis at the Mashpee River Reservation
(left to right) Russ Hopping, The Trustees of Reservations; Chuckie Green, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe; and Elizabeth Lewis, Orenda Wildlife Land Trust.

The most critical threat to the New England Cottontail is a loss of habitat. New England cottontails need brush, shrubs, and densely growing young trees, described by the general term young forest, where they can find food, rear young, and escape predators. Development has taken much of the land that used to be young forest and thousands more acres have grown up into older woods, where cottontails don't generally live.

More than 100 kinds of wildlife in the Northeast use dense woody habitats such as shrubland and young forest use young forest during part or all of their life cycles, so restoring New England Cottontail habitat benefits many other species, as well.

The New England cottontail – which looks similar to the more abundant Eastern Cottontail, an introduced species – lives in coastal southwestern Maine, southeastern New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and southeastern New York – less than a fifth of its historic range. Today it faces possible extinction.

Here are three stories about partners working together to protect New England Cottontail habitat:


Mashpee River Reservation | Russ Hopping | The Trustees of Reservations

At the Mashpee River Reservation, which is owned by The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), a statewide land trust, approximately 50 acres of dense forest canopy have been cleared to benefit New England Cottontails. The goal was to reduce the canopy, creating an open woodland savannah to encourage a dense shrub undergrowth: the habitat that the New England Cottontail prefers.

This is a good opportunity not just for the New England Cottontail – but also the other species that use that type of habitat, the early successional, shrubland habitat.

“There’s a whole suite of bird species including grouse, turkey, eastern towhees, prairie warblers; we hope to see these things increase, in addition to the New England Cottontail,” said Russ Hopping, The Trustees’ Ecology Program Director, noting that invertebrates, including many rare moth species on Cape Cod, rely on this type of habitat.

Hopping explained that an understory of diverse shrubs and plants on the property just needed to be released. Black huckleberries, low-bush blueberries, bracken fern and scrub oak were being suppressed by the dense canopy but with the tree clearing, the plants have really taken off, which will provide flowers for pollinators and fruit for wildlife.

“This was going to cost some money and we couldn’t do it alone, so we reached out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to see if they could help,” said Hopping. “Indeed, both provided financial assistance. In particular, the NRCS provided funds for the initial clearing and additional funds to do maintenance.”

The proximity of this site to other sites with well-known populations of New England Cottontail made the project a sustainable approach for maintaining a local rabbit population.

According to Hopping, there were several considerations in implementing the management plan. “First, we were working around a rare species at the Massachusetts level: the Eastern Box turtle, which is a species of special concern in Massachusetts,” said Hopping.

“A second consideration that we needed to be mindful of was the community character and change. So, even though this is a 50 acre clearing, most of it is not visible from the roadways.”

TTOR will maintain fire breaks that not only would contain wildfires, but will also function as a trail network. “We have created interpretive panels that will allow people who visit this site to understand why we did this, what are some of the other species that benefit and hopefully they will come and enjoy it and experience the wildlife, see this change for themselves and understand that this is important conservation work,” said Hopping.


Carl Mongé Sanctuary | Elizabeth Lewis | Orenda Wildlife Land Trust

The Orenda Wildlife Land Trust’s mission is to provide habitat for wildlife, so with the New England Cottontail being a candidate for an endangered species, a project to protect its habitat at their Carl Mongé Sanctuary in Mashpee fit nicely.

“We started a campaign to improve habitat for the New England Cottontail but we also feel that this program would benefit other species, too,” said Orenda Wildlife Land Trust Adminstrator, Elizabeth Lewis, who explained that the land trust was started in 1986 by Barbara Birdsey, who wanted to provide a habitat for wildlife because the Cape was losing habitat to development.

“She wanted a place where animals and birds could be without any intrusion. Most of our properties don’t have any trails on them,” said Lewis.

Members of the Orenda board attended a meeting hosted by Marianne Piche, a biologist with the Mass. Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, also known as MassWildlife, who provides technical assistance to NRCS. Piche told them about funding available for habitat restoration. So, they then got in touch with the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office. District Conservationist Don Liptack met with them, helped with paperwork and answered their questions.

In late May 2013, Orenda implemented prescribed burning, a conservation practice that helps plants to regenerate by exposing soil and controlling competing vegetation. Prescribed burning also lessens the threat of wildfires by reducing fuel load in the forest. They saw results by October.  “We’ve been really pleased with the results of this program,” said Lewis.

The 14 acre sanctuary on Lovell’s Lane protects land on one side of the road but on the other side are many residential neighbors. “We felt we were providing a service for the nearby homeowners, as well, by reducing the danger of wildfires by putting firebreaks in the project area,” said Lewis, noting that fire breaks create an area with no fuel for wildfires and access for fire suppression equipment.

Lewis said that the project has gone smoother than expected. “This was our first time doing this, so we didn’t know what we were getting into.  The board’s been very happy and we’d do it again. Mashpee is a growing community, so we feel we’re providing a great service.”


Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe | George “Chuckie” Green

When the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe started a 32 acre project to protect New England Cottontail habitat on tribal land with the assistance of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Cape Cod Conservation District, it held historic, as well as environmental significance for the tribe.

“The driving force was to be able to fund a way to recreate habitat that resembled what our people lived with, protected and maintained,” said George “Chuckie” Green, Assistant Natural Resources Director for the tribe. “Maintaining the environment is a part of my history, my culture, my life. We live one with all creatures. To us all creatures are our brothers and sisters. “

Fifteen years ago, Green visited the site with the Mashpee fire chief to show him the amount of debris in the woods, a detriment to wildlife.

“Along came the New England Cottontail. It became for us a warrior,” said Green, adding that they focused on not only managing the forest for New England Cottontail, but also for other species that are dependent on fire, early successional habitat and food sources that are low to the ground.

 “The cottontail is important to us because it is reaching candidate status. If it were to be put on the endangered species list, the tribe, being a hunter-gatherer people would no longer be able to hunt rabbits. Rabbits have been a major part of our food, clothing and our lives,” said Green.

In researching the tribe’s culture, Green found out that they historically burned woodlands. “I didn’t understand that until we put fire to the ground,” said Green, referring to prescribed burning. “We started seeing plants that we hadn’t seen in our lifetime come back.”

Green also noticed a small blue moth that he had never seen before. “I’ve spent my life in the woods but had never seen this little blue moth. This spring those little blue moths were all over the property. Come to find out they used to be an endangered species.”

The Mashpee tribal land is bordered by town and state land. “We know we have rabbits on all these properties. If we can create a large area here for habitat, we have the potential to give the New England Cottontail a strong foothold,” said Green.

NRCS helped the tribe with planning, support and execution. “Without them, we couldn’t have done this,” said Green.

“What we did, and what our partners are doing, brought us back in time to a place where we can work with other governments, friends and partners to achieve something people said can’t be done. But we’re doing it. We are doing it.”