U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Release New England Cottontails on Island Refuge

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New England cottontail
A New England cottontail that will be released on Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge as part of an effort to restore the rare rabbit to New England and eastern New York. Credit: MassWildlife

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 17, 2019 – Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge will soon become home to the New England cottontail rabbit as part of an ongoing conservation effort to restore this rare species to New England and eastern New York.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), in collaboration with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife), Roger Williams Park Zoo, Bristol County Agricultural High School (Bristol Aggie), and the University of Rhode Island (URI), is planning to release rabbits on Nomans Land Island off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Habitat evaluation studies suggest that Nomans Land Island’s self-sustaining coastal shrublands can support 600 cottontails or more.

This winter, MassWildlife trapped 13 wild rabbits on the mainland that have since been cared for by Bristol Aggie students in Dighton. Veterinary care and genetic work were conducted by the Roger Williams Park Zoo and URI. A similar effort beginning in 2012 established a population of New England cottontails on Patience Island in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. T.J. McGreevey, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island, estimates that Patience Island supports a population of 60 to 170 breeding New England cottontails.

The capture and release effort, designed to create a new population in a protected area, is part of a larger rangewide New England cottontail conservation and restoration effort.

Unlike the common and nonnative eastern cottontails, New England cottontail rabbits seek protection in very dense thickets associated with young forests, shrublands, and coastal barrens. Over several decades, New England cottontail populations dwindled as these habitats were cleared for development or matured into older and taller woods, reducing ground-level shelter and food for rabbits. Today the New England cottontail is restricted to 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.

As cottontail populations continued to diminish, the Service, state fish and wildlife agencies, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, private landowners, university researchers, and other partners acknowledged the need, urgency and opportunity to conserve this at-risk species. The New England cottontail became a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2006, but due to conservation and continued commitment by state agencies and organizations, the Service determined in 2015 that listing was not warranted. The Nomans Land Island project is part of the ongoing conservation initiative to conserve New England cottontails and other wildlife that depend on young forest and shrubland.

The New England cottontail is one of nearly 200 species in the eastern United States that have been determined since 2011 to not need federal protection as a result of proactive conservation with partners and improved science and understanding of threats. The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other government agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, tribes, businesses, utilities and others. This proactive conservation approach relies on incentives as well as flexibilities within the ESA to protect rare wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working.