Zoo-bred New England cottontail being released. Photo © Tom Barnes / USFWS

Stunned but delighted is how Dr. Robert McDowell, Director of Wildlife at the University of Connecticut, sounded when I arrived at his office to learn about New England cottontail rabbits.

Finally someone other than himself was interested in these vanishing natives. We pored over skulls and skins and vainly patrolled early successional woods for live specimens. McDowell seethed about the mindset of state fish and game bureaucrats: we can’t waste time on a few native rabbits when we have so many look-a-like non-natives and when license buyers want more pheasants, ducks and deer.

The year was 1983.

The non-natives, called “eastern cottontails,” are a genetic mishmash of species and subspecies plucked from Minnesota, West Virginia, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. From the late 1800s to the early 1970s fish and game agencies in the Northeast permitted, encouraged and initiated stocking of these aliens. The result is a tough, adaptable mongrel imbued with hybrid vigor that outcompetes the fragile, specialized native.

In the field even biologists can’t tell an eastern cottontail from a New Englander, but under the skin they’re very different beasts, apparently incapable of hybridization. Easterns can make a living most anywhere, including the young forests on which New England cottontails depend and which, because of fire suppression and beaver-dam control, we’re running out of.

Thanks largely to people like McDowell and Dr. John Litvaitis, a wildlife professor at the University of New Hampshire, there has been a sea change in attitudes. Major funds started pouring in for habitat work when the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI) got interested in New England cottontails. Now New York and every New England state (save Vermont where the species has been extirpated) is represented on a New England Cottontail Technical Committee. A state, federal and private partnership called the New England Cottontail Initiative is undertaking young-forest restoration rangewide. And rabbits are being raised for release at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island, the Queens Zoo in New York, and Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire.

New England Cottontail release. Photo © Paul Fusco, CT DEEP

On December 14, 2016 America’s newest national wildlife refuge — the Great Thicket, taking in parts of all six New England cottontail states, was jump-started by a gift from The Nature Conservancy of its 144-acre Nellie Hill Preserve in Dover Plains, New York. In addition to native cottontails the refuge will provide habitat for dozens of other depressed young-forest-dependent species.

The New England cottontail had been a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, but on September 11, 2015 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that listing was not warranted because of all the recovery work.

I wish McDowell could have been with me and my wife Donna on May 17, 2017 when Wayne Woodard, director of The Nature Conservancy’s 1,900-acre Sunny Valley Preserve in Bridgewater, Connecticut, showed us the kind of work the partnership is doing.

Serenaded by bobolinks, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, American redstarts and red-winged blackbirds, Woodard, Donna and I hiked along meadows managed for grassland birds. In the distance unfurling leaves of mature hardwoods glowed chartreuse in full afternoon sun. Much of this forest, the bane of New England cottontails, is scheduled for clearcutting, but first the understory of invasive barberry needs to be removed. A year earlier a contractor had herbicided a 25-acre plot on the uphill (east) side of a stonewall because barberry seeds mostly by gravity. The contrast with the grossly infested west side was striking. “We had a 95-percent kill rate,” said Woodard. “We’ll go back and treat what’s left, then next winter we’ll do a clearcut.” Barberry on the west side of the stonewall is scheduled for herbiciding, too.

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