Recently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that due to the work and commitment of many conservation partners in New England and New York, the New England Cottontail (NEC) is on the path to recovery and will not be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. It had previously been classified as a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection. This once-common native species survives in five isolated populations across Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island.
The NEC is the only rabbit native to New England and the area east of the Hudson River in New York. A closely related species, the Eastern Cottontail, expanded across much of the area following introductions around the turn of the 20th century. The two rabbits look alike— only skull characteristics and genetic samples can be used for an accurate identification.
Unlike the Eastern Cottontail, NEC rely exclusively on young forests and shrublands (early-successional habitats). These habitats are often associated with abandoned agricultural lands, wetlands, woodland clearcuts, coastal shrublands, scrub oak barrens, utility rights-of-way, or other areas where disturbance has stimulated the growth of young shrubs and other plants in dense thickets. The NEC’s range has drastically shrunk since the 1960s as development altered vast areas of the thick, brushy shrubland required by it and other young forest-dependent wildlife. The remaining forests matured into older and taller woods with little ground-level shelter or food for the native cottontails.
Recognizing both the urgency and the opportunity to conserve the NEC, state and federal biologists began a coordinated, rangewide, science-based conservation initiative that has supported the rabbits’ ongoing path to recovery. The New England Cottontail Initiative represents an extraordinary effort to combine funding and cooperative efforts to advance the conservation of an animal that could have been federally listed.
“Unfortunately, many people view a species listing as a victory, when in fact the real victories are like today’s when we take collaborative action to avoid a listing,” said Jack Buckley, Director of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife ((DFW) “Proactively managing the rabbit’s conservation needs and keeping it unlisted allows for flexible management options, less conservation action implementation costs, and fewer land use or hunting restrictions.”
Conservation activities for NEC in Massachusetts are focused in southeastern Massachusetts and southern Berkshire County and are led by DFW and a broad range of committed partners. These activities include the following:
- Conducting habitat management activities such as prescribed fires, tree clearing or thinning on state, federal, and private lands in the Bay State. To date, over 1,100 acres of pitch pine and scrub oak habitats were thinned and/or burned and nearly 300 acres of trees were cleared to create young forest and shrublands to support NEC populations. These land management actions took place on lands owned or managed by DFW, MA Department of Conservation and Recreation, Joint Base Cape Cod, Mashpee-Wampanoag Tribal Land, UFWS, land trusts, municipalities, sporting clubs, and other private landowners. Additional habitat management activities are scheduled in the upcoming year are as follows:
- Providing initial funding for landowners both public and private to create NEC habitat. Primary funding sources in Massachusetts included the USFWS, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and State Wildlife Grants.
- Collecting rabbit carcasses and pellets to locate NEC in the state. Many hunters and other conservation-minded groups and citizens in Massachusetts contributed to this statewide effort, with the University of Rhode Island conducting genetic testing.
- Live trapping and radio-collaring rabbits to learn more about their life history needs, to monitor movements and habitat use, and to provide stock for a captive breeding program. DFW, USFWS, Mashpee-Wampanoag Tribe and the MA Air National Guard were all involved in this effort.
- Analyzing vegetation on lands for habitat suitability and monitoring the resulting vegetation growth following habitat management alterations.
- Continuing the collaboration with state and conservation organization partners across New England and New York. The New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative, consisting of representatives from all of the above mentioned conservation partners will continue oversight on the recovery effort for NEC across New England and New York, providing an important administrative mechanism that allows for conservation coordination across boundaries.
“Though the NEC is not listed, there is still much to be done,” said Director Buckley. He noted that DFW and its conservation partners are seeking help from landowners willing to create and maintain young forest and shrubland habitats. More information about New England Cottontails can be found at www.newenglandcottontail.org or contact MassWildlife at email@example.com. *****
This year, woodcock hunting runs from October 7 through October 24 and from October 26 through November 21. Hunting hours are 1/2 hour before sunrise to sunset (except on Wildlife Management Areas stocked with pheasants, where hunting hours begin at sunrise). A Harvest Information Program (HIP) Survey is required. All migratory gamebird hunters must register with the HIP each calendar year either on line at mass.gov/massfishhunt or anywhere hunting licenses are sold. State and Federal Waterfowl Stamps are required for hunting ducks and geese, but are not required for hunting woodcock. *****
DFW Western District Manager Andrew Madden recently reported that as a result of President Mark Jester and the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen efforts, the DFW will be implementing a new program similar to the highly successful National Archery in Schools (NAIS) Program. Called the Explorer Bowhunting Program it will be designed for other programs or after school programs (Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, etc.) It was not designed to replace the DFW Bowhunter Education Program but it is a little more hunter based than the NAIS. There will be more to come on this in the near future.