New England’s cottontail rabbits face extinction… if you love them, help save them.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

I had the most extraordinary experience recently when I took my nephew Kyle out to see the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts. Built in 1770 for patriot minister William Emerson, the residents of this handsome clapboard  house literally heard the shot heard round the world on April 19, 1775.

Later, that revolution won, residents welcomed one celebrated guest after another… Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller.  Two of the most celebrated of all — Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne both lived there for a time and both were fertile with the seminal ideas that shaped the new nation.

Emerson wrote his famous essay “Nature” in a stuffy upstairs bedroom. Hawthorne wrote a tribute to the house itself, “Mosses from an Old Manse.” Both he and his wife Sophia chiseled poems for each other on the window glass using a diamond that surely symbolized a love so great it could take in its stride the massive discomfort of their chamber on the second floor, frigid in winter, insufferable in summer.

One more guest came, or rather a stream of them… and it is these guests who so startled us the other day. The Old Manse was closing for the day and the sun was dipping in the western sky.

I was walking away from the house when I turned for a last look and saw an overpowering luminescence… a spectrum of colors bathed in a light that could only be called celestial. It was a benediction… overwhelming… perplexing…

… until I realized that the epicenter of this luminescence was the heirloom vegetable garden originally planted by Thoreau in honor of the Hawthornes’ wedding.  Kyle and I were being ushered off the property in high style, grandly so… by the rabbits who entered the garden as its visitors left; their ears catching the light to produce this astonishing effect… It was unexpected but no less welcome for that. It was good to see  so many of them…. and so well, though I can imagine the gardeners felt quite differently. Sadly, this brave show may well have been a swan song… especially if these rabbits were of the New England cottontail variety.

New England cottontails and their plight.

The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is a species of cottontail rabbit represented by fragmented populations in areas of New England, specifically from southern Maine to southern New York. This species bears a close resemblance (so close you must analyze their fecal droppings to tell the difference) to the Eastern cottontail. It is important to know that the Eastern cottontail has done the better job of adapting to its often harsh environment; the New England cottontail, for instance, retains its brown color during the winter, the better to be seen and enjoyed by hungry coyotes and owls. This is but one of the several pressing reasons which together may presage the end of these uniquely New England residents. Here is the full litany of the woes which assail them…

Item:  Its population is in sharp decline. As recently as 1960, New England cottontails were found east of the Hudson River in New York, across all of  Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, north to southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and into southern Maine.

Today, this rabbit’s range has shrunk by more than 75  percent. Its numbers are so greatly diminished that it cannot be found in Vermont and has been reduced, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, to only five smaller populations throughout its historic range.

Item: Drastically reduced habitat. The New England cottontail prefers early successional forests, often called thickets, with thick and tangled vegetation. These young forests are generally less than 25 years old. Once large trees grow in a stand, the shrub layer tends to shrink, creating habitat that the cottontails no longer find suitable.

New England cottontails need a certain amount of territory to flourish. They do best on patches of habitat larger than 12 acres. Rabbits on smaller patches of  habitat deplete their food supply sooner and have to eat lower quality food, or may need to search for food in areas where there is more risk (especially in winter) of being killed by a predator.

Item: The introduction of exotic invasive species, such as multiflora rose, honeysuckle bush and autumn olive, in the last century has changed the type of habitat available to New England cottontails. These plants form the major component of many patches where cottontails can be found, and the rabbits don’t like them at all.

Item: Today white-tailed deer are found in extremely high densities throughout the range of New England cottontails. Deer not only eat many of the same plants but may affect the density of many understory plants that provide thicket habitat for New England cottontails.

And so the woes pile up, one on top of the other until catastrophe looms… and swiftly so. Even their well-known prolific breeding habits, known to all, cannot save them… without our immediate assistance. Thankfully a measure of that assistance is now at hand…

Under an agreement announced in April, 2011, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department will work with private landowners in Cheshire, Hillsborough, Merrimack, Rockingham and Strafford counties to help restore the thickets during the next 50 years. The goal is to enroll 3,000 to 5,000 acres to be managed as cottontail habitat.

The agreement in New Hampshire allows the Fish and Game Department to provide assurance to volunteering landowners that their conservation work “won’t jeopardize the future use or value of the land if the species is eventually federally listed,” said Steve Weber, chief of the department’s wildlife division. Such federal listing as an endangered species is probable since the cottontail was listed in 2006 as a candidate under the Endangered Species Act.

Now the good people of New  Hampshire can make a start at preserving the cottontails by cutting vegetation to promote shrub development, planting seeds, controlling invasive plants, and transferring some rabbits to the newly created habitats. It is good… but is it enough… and in time?

A candid conclusion.

For thousands of years, New England cottontails were self-sufficient, thank you very much. Then we, homo sapiens, descended, spreading dislocation, disaster, death. Now the future of these silky creatures is in our hands. Surely a great nation that can put members of our species on the moon can make a few bucks available to save them and give them the little they need to survive. But will we? That is the open question that demands the right answer, for really what do a few rabbits matter in the scheme of things?

Here is the righteous answer: if we will not protect the small and meek like the cottontails, how can we be expected to do what’s necessary to protect ourselves and the planet? We are all, you see, endangered together. When will we finally come to understand?


About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc. , providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.

Dr. Lant is also the author of 18 best-selling business books.

Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee – The Income Zone

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  • Lois Titherington

    March 21, 2015 at 7:19 pm Reply

    How does one know the difference? What is the plan to save them??? I donate money to the Sierra Club but would like my questions answered. There are many rabbits in Belmont and they can eat whatever they want in my yard. I have seen the Fisher Cat drinking from a garden trug in my yard and it ate chickens a few doors away…scary.Also thought it attacked Peach my neighbors cat. Perhaps he might be the dastardly culprit. But WHAT IS THE PLAN to save the NEW ENGLAND COTTONTAIL??????

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