Cottontail

The New England cottontail. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS PHOTO / November 25, 2013)

All of which brings us to the efforts by Connecticut officials to use some of the state's 32,000 acres of wildlife management areas (WMAs) to help our native New England bunny.

Many of those wildlife areas were originally bought by the state using federal money. That cash was generated by fees tacked on when someone buys guns, ammunition, bows, arrows, fishing equipment, gets hunting or fishing licenses, or fuels up a boat.

The whole idea behind the wildlife-management-area program was to save land to help preserve all kinds of native species of birds, fish and animals that were rapidly losing out to human development.

Connecticut's WMAs are scattered all over the state. They range in size from 2,017 acres (the Roraback WMA in Harwinton) down to several small parcels of a single acre or less.

The last two big federally funded wild land purchases in this state were the 700-acre Sessions Woods WMA in Burlington, which was picked up for $663,000 in 1982; and 311 acres in Bozrah that was bought in 1984 for $252,000 and designated as the Bear Hill WMA.

The state is now using its own money, from the Recreation and Natural Heritage Program, to buy even more wildlife preservation areas. More than $5.8 million has been spent buying up some 650 acres in places like Vernon and Suffield.

Other properties (like the big Roraback tract) were donated to the state.

Paul Rothbart, a member of DEEP's wildlife division, says some of those wildlife management areas are devoted to projects to help specific types of species.

Rothbart says the newly purchased Suffield property, for example, is undergoing "extensive site cleanups" to get rid of all the trash dumped there over the years.

"The ultimate goal for the area... is to provide nesting habitat for grassland species," according to Rothbart.

Eight other WMAs in Connecticut have been tagged as good sites for projects to make the sort of habitat favored by the New England cottontail.

Rothbart says Connecticut recently finished up projects involving 183 acres of cottontail habitat work using a $180,000 federal grant. Another $225,000 in federal funding is being targeted for projects on an additional 400 acres. While all this money is theoretically aimed at helping the New England cottontail, Rothbart says experts estimate the habitat improvements "benefit at least 47 other species."

What makes McAvoy's farm in Scotland sort of special is that it is right across a road from one of those state-owned cottontail habitat sites, the 469-acre Spignesi WMA.

State officials contacted McAvoy not long after he bought his land and asked if they could conduct rabbit studies on it. For the next three years, they picked up bunny pellets, trapped rabbits and collared them, and conducted loads of DNA tests to see which rabbits were which.

After the study determined there were a goodly number of New England cottontails on the land, McAvoy agreed to take part in a program designed to provide the native beasties with the right kind of habitat.

So invasive plants like autumn olive were ripped out by contractors' bulldozers and backhoes. This past spring, McAvoy, members of his family and local volunteers planted some 500 native shrubs, including bayberry, wild raspberry and juniper, in 15 different bush "islands" that were fenced off to protect them from the deer.

"Right now we have approximately 30 acres in the development stage," says McAvoy. He figures about $20,000 in federal funding has been spent so far on the project.

"This just seems like an ideal way, not only to preserve open space… but to help save an endangered species," says the 53-year-old McAvoy. "I want to keep the land as open space, to pass it on to my children and grandchildren... I consider myself a conservationist, and preserving this kind of good habitat is really important."

McAvoy believes the project will also help other species, from the monarch butterflies that feed on the milkweed growing across the farm, to the deer and wild turkeys that McAvoy occasionally likes to hunt.

And what about all those bunnies he's been helping?

"I'm just not a rabbit hunter," he says with a smile.

 

ghladky@hartfordadvocate.com

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