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News Release

USDA Releases Three-Year Strategy to Help New England Cottontail

Justin Fritscher

USDA, Private Partners to Restore 1,700 Acres of Young Forests in Six New England States, Enhancing Habitat for New England Cottontail and Other Species

New England Cottontail Strategy

Download the FY16-18 conservation strategy. (PDF, 1MB)

Additional Resources

WASHINGTON, July 11, 2016 – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a new three-year conservation strategy to help restore declining 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 USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (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,” NRCS Chief Jason Weller said. “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, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island, 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.

To accomplish this, the strategy focuses on controlling weeds, increasing habitat connectivity, creating patches of young forests amid mature forests and providing outreach to landowners and conservation partners. Additionally, NRCS is directing resources to where they can net the highest biological returns.

For example, in Massachusetts, the agency will use prescribed fire to restore pitch pine and scrub oak forests near the coasts and on Cape Cod. And in Maine, NRCS will restore habitat on lands near a large power line, which collectively can serve as a habitat corridor.

Habitat restored for the New England cottontail benefits many other species, including bobcat, skunk, box and wood turtles. 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 non-game bird populations, and also attracts many game species like American woodcock, 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.

Download the strategy. To learn more about assistance opportunities, landowners should contact their local USDA service center.

Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $29 billion to help producers make conservation improvements, working with a record 500,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect land and water on over 400 million acres nationwide. For an interactive look at USDA's work in conservation and forestry over the course of this Administration, visit USDA Results: Caring for our Air, Land and Water.


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