Tracking the New England Cottontail

From east of the Hudson River and up through New England, efforts are underway to save what’s become a rare species of rabbit — the New England Cottontail. It’s the species that was a staple for Native Americans and early settlers, but it’s now threatened by habitat loss. In an attempt to avoid placing the rabbit on the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to increase its numbers by creating new habitat.

It’s hard to believe that a rabbit could have trouble reproducing. But that’s the case with the New England Cottontail, whose range is shrinking. One place where relic populations remain is on Cape Cod. And Mashpee resident Tony Perry is using his skills as a tracker and trapper to help biologists with an on-the-ground study to learn where they still exist.

The New England Cottontail is the native rabbit that Perry’s Wampanoag ancestors hunted. And today, Perry’s tracking that same species, using a hand-held GPS unit to locate a rabbit wearing a radio collar, just a few hundred yards behind a housing development. He’s also checking some traps he baited the day before with pears and apples.

“You see another orange flag over there? That’s where the trap actually is,” Perry says.

Biologists believe the reason New England Cottontails’ numbers are down is because its natural range includes fewer places like the one near Waquoit Bay. This is the habitat where the New England Cottontail feels protected. With its thick and thorny undergrowth, Perry says it’s the perfect place to set his trap.

“There is a bunny in it. We do have a bunny,” he says.

In a corner of the cage, a rabbit small enough to hold in your hand is trying to make itself even smaller. Only its nose is twitching. Spying its ear tag, Perry says he trapped this particular New England Cottontail a few weeks earlier, about 300 yards away, where he took a DNA sample.

Standing nearby is Jim Rassman. He’s with the Waquoit Bay Research Reserve, and has been part of this New England Cottontail project for more than two years. But he’s only seen about a half-dozen of the rare rabbits up close.

“You can see, it’s a very dark rabbit with dark lines along its ears and short, little short ears, so its body overall is small, it has very short ears, and it has a lot of black on it,” Rassman says. “In comparison, the Eastern Cottontail would be a larger rabbit with a lot more white on it.”

The Eastern Cottontail is a lot more common, sometimes seen bounding across suburban lawns. The two rabbits look similar, with their trademark cottony tails. But the non-native Eastern Cottontail was introduced to this region in the early 1900s by hunters who wanted more game. With its large eye diameter, the Eastern Cottontail can spot predators more easily and doesn’t need as dense an underbrush to survive.

Perry opens up the cage holding the New England Cottontail.

“Yup, there he goes. Rabbit wasn’t harmed,” he says. “We released him. We’ll see if we can catch another one tomorrow.”

By trapping rabbits and collecting DNA samples, conservationists throughout the Cottontail’s natural range of New York and New England are sorting out where the rabbit still exists and how it moves around. The idea is to protect existing habitat and to manage it differently to encourage thick shrubs and undergrowth. Because the Cottontail’s low numbers aren’t driven by predators, Tom Eagle of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the work should help boost Cottontail populations.

“So our intentions are to go back in and somehow allow more light down to the forest floor, increasing the shrub layer and stem density, which makes it more preferred to rabbits,” Eagle says. “This can be done mechanically through mowing or cutting of trees … or through prescribed burning, and we’ll be trying all different techniques and find out which one works the best.”

Convincing people of the need to cut and burn land isn’t easy, no matter what the purpose. And it will have to involve both private and public landowners. But officials say the Cottontail could benefit from its cuteness factor. People may be more willing to take action to help an endangered bunny than a fish or an insect. And all the rabbit really needs to increase its numbers is a safe place to do its thing.

Northeast environmental reporting is made possible, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.