Saving The New England Cottontail Rabbit

This is a wild bunny alert: Our New England cottontail rabbit is in trouble.

It won't be much of a surprise to learn that we're to blame. Perhaps it will lessen the guilt to know state and federal environmentalists — and a few conservation-minded landowners — are now working to save our native bunnies.

And they're doing it in part by using a program designed to provide hunters with more wild game to shoot.

Which is fine with Tom McAvoy, who happens to like hunting.

McAvoy's 115-acre farm in the little eastern Connecticut town of Scotland is one focus of a combined federal-state effort to provide more of the brushy, thickety landscape favored by our furry native cottontails.

A vice president at Dime Bank, McAvoy bought the property about six years ago. He says his original plan was to bulldoze some of the overgrown fields, bring back some of the pastureland for a few cows, and keep the rest of the farm as open space for his kids and grandkids to enjoy.

McAvoy was a little taken aback when state environmental officials offered to provide federal funding for a project to improve the cottontail habitat on sections of his farm.

"My first reaction was, 'We're spending taxpayer dollars on what?'" he laughs.

Since then, McAvoy has learned a lot about these New England rabbits and the reasons why we should be trying to save them. (He even calls his land "Cottontail Farm.")

Environmentalists argue that saving the New England cottontail is part of the attempt to fight back against the influx of alien species and preserve at least some of our region's natural mix of plants and animals. Help our cottontail to come back, they say, and you also help the vegetation and predators that evolved with the rabbit.

The first thing to know about the New England cottontail is that it's not the same rabbit most Connecticut people see on their lawns or nibbling at the veggies in their gardens. Those furry, long-eared buggers are most likely members of the Eastern cottontail clan, a cousin species to our New England bunnies.

It's not easy to tell the two types of rabbits apart, unless you do a DNA test or measure their skulls.

Experts say a goodly number of Eastern cottontails often have a star-like white mark on their foreheads, which New England cottontails lack. But if there's no mark, the two species can look "almost identical," according to the Wildlife in Connecticut Notebook, published by Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

"We see a lot of rabbits around here," says McAvoy, "but I couldn't tell the difference."

Our native New England cottontails once roamed the scrub woods and brushy areas of our region from the Hudson River Valley all the way to Maine's Atlantic coast.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Eastern cottontail was imported from the Midwest, presumably to improve the prospects of local hunters looking to bring home something for dinner.

Our New England rabbit continued to hold the upper hand through the 1930s. The dynamic changed as farmland went away, replaced by woodlands and suburbs. Today, the Eastern cottontail, which thrives on lawns and golf courses, is far more numerous.

Back in 2000, Connecticut environmentalists began collecting information on the two cottontail species' status. They got samples from hunters, live-trapped the little beggars, picked up bunny roadkill, and tested rabbit poop.

The results showed cottontails in 115 of Connecticut's 169 cities and towns. Eastern cottontails showed up in 94 percent of those communities, while the native New Englanders could be found in only 23 percent of those towns.

In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed the New England cottontail was in enough trouble to be considered a candidate for "threatened or endangered" status as a species.

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.

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