Federal, state wildlife agencies release New England cottontails on island refuge

URI plays key research role

Media Contact: Dave Lavallee, 401-874-5862 |

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 9, 2019 — As part of an ongoing conservation effort to restore the rare New England cottontail rabbit to New England and eastern New York, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with partners, released 13 wild-caught New England cottontails Tuesday, May 7, on Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge, an island off Martha’s Vineyard.

Formerly used by the U.S. Navy to practice bombing, the island refuge is anticipated to host a thriving, sustainable population of rare rabbits and serve as a source of rabbits to boost mainland New England cottontail populations. The project is part of a larger range-wide New England cottontail conservation and restoration effort.

Biologists Eileen McGourty (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and John Garofoli (MassWildlife) release New England cottontails on Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge. T.J. McGreevy Jr., assistant research professor with the University of Rhode Island, which conducted genetic work, stands behind them. Credit: Linh Phu/USFWS

In late winter, MassWildlife biologists and technicians trapped 13 wild rabbits on the mainland. The rabbits were cared for by Bristol County Agricultural High School students in Dighton, Massachusetts. Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence provided veterinary services and the University of Rhode Island conducted genetic work. The rabbits were fitted Monday with tracking collars to assist biologists in monitoring rabbit movement and survival. Habitat evaluation studies suggest that Nomans Land Island’s self-sustaining coastal shrublands can support 600 cottontails or more. A similar effort in 2012 established a population of New England cottontails on Patience Island in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.

“A New England cottontail colony on Nomans Land Island will be like insurance for our only native rabbit,” said Eileen McGourty, the lead Fish and Wildlife Service biologist on the project. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is pleased to continue efforts under the cottontail conservation initiative and is grateful for the partnership that has made this project possible.”

“Partnering with the Service and others on the rabbit capture and release project is just one of several conservation actions MassWildlife is taking to restore New England cottontails,” said David Scarpitti, MassWildlife upland game biologist. “However, without the right type of habitat, there are no rabbits. Actively managing land through conducting prescribed fires, clearing or thinning trees address the rabbits’ fundamental habitat needs. These activities have and continue to be a major priority for MassWildlife and other NEC  partners on state, federal and private lands in and near areas where these rabbits are located.”

New England cottontails, Massachusetts’s only native rabbit, are uncommon. The eastern cottontail, its look-alike relative, is a common and non-native rabbit that most people see in their yards and communities. Unlike eastern cottontails, New England cottontail rabbits seek protection in very dense thickets, sapling-like forests, shrubby, overgrown brambles and pine-oak and heathland habitats. Over several decades, these habitats matured into older and taller woods or were cleared for development. Subsequently, New England cottontail populations dwindled as ground-level food and shelter for rabbits became scarce. Today, the New England cottontail is found only in southern Maine, southern New Hampshire, and parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York east of the Hudson River — less than a fifth of its historic range.

“The Wildlife Genetics and Ecology Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island is pleased to assist in the New England cottontail conservation effort,” said laboratory director T.J. McGreevy Jr., assistant research professor at URI. “We look forward to continuing to use our genetic expertise to support the Nomans Land Island project, in hopes that a self-sustaining breeding colony will develop and help mainland populations.”

“We are proud to be part of this amazing partnership and excited to see this collaboration grow,” said Lou Perrotti, Roger Williams Park Zoo director of conservation programs. “This is a fantastic example of partners in action for species conservation while inspiring the next generation.”

The initiative to save the New England cottontail, the only cottontail rabbit native to New England and eastern New York, has been lauded as a model for collaborative public-private conservation. When cottontail populations declined, the states, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, private landowners, university researchers, the Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners recognized the urgency and the opportunity to conserve this species. The initiative developed and launched conservation efforts to reverse those declines. In 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined the New England cottontail did not require federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, but called for continued conservation efforts.

Nomans Land Island is part of the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge Complex, headquartered in Sudbury. The refuge is part of a national network of lands and waters that are administered for the conservation, management, and, where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans. There are 566 national wildlife refuges across the country, protecting more than 150 million acres of land for wildlife conservation.