Cottontail rabbit population drops below 100 in N.H.
Biologists strive to restore habitat to help save them
CONCORD, N.H. — More than 50 years ago, New England Cottontail rabbits were plentiful from New Hampshire’s Lakes Region to the Seacoast.
Today, wildlife biologists believe there are fewer than 100 of the small brown rabbits in a state that has seen the sharpest declines in New England.
Biologists blame the loss of habitat — patches of thickets in younger forests — and they are working across the region to create a hospitable environment for the rabbits.
“They’re the poster child for the loss of shrubland habitat,’’ said Steven Fuller, a wildlife biologist with the state Fish and Game Department.
Last year, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Connecticut received federal grants to help preserve the cottontail. Since then, teams of state and federal agencies have been stepping up efforts locally and are working together in the region to control and create new habitat for the rabbits.
The Rangewide New England Cottontail Initiative is focusing on areas targeted for conservation and restoration on public and private land with plans to branch out to Rhode Island, New York, and Maine.
New Hampshire and Maine — another state with a dramatic decline in the New England Cottontail — are working with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation on separate restoration projects.
Tony Tur, an endangered-species biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said new forests formed on farms that were abandoned in New Hampshire from the 1900s through the 1930s, which appealed to the cottontails.
But as forests grew older and more dense, the thickets preferred by the rabbits began to disappear, and remaining pockets have been fragmented by development. The New England Cottontail also was competing for habitat with another rabbit, the Eastern Cottontail, which is better at adapting.
The recent expansion of the Portland International Jetport in Maine is an example of how the cottontail’s preferred habitat of brush and brambles is being eliminated. Because of Federal Aviation Administration concerns, cottontails were removed from 13 acres to keep wildlife away from the runways.
The last survey conducted in Maine found only 300 of the rabbits in the state.
As recently as 1960, cottontails were found east of the Hudson River in New York, across Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, and in southern Vermont, New Hampshire, and southern Maine, the US Fish and Wildlife Service says. These days, they are considered extinct in Vermont, where there hasn’t been a sighting since 1971.
Four years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service chose not to pursue protection for them under the Endangered Species Act. But they have been declared endangered by the states of Maine and New Hampshire, where officials are working with a small group of landowners to volunteer to set aside areas for the animals.
In New Hampshire, one of them is the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, which plans in August to convert two 5-acre forest plots at the Bellamy River Wildlife Sanctuary in Dover into cottontail habitat.