Canterbury welcomes New England cottontail rabbits

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Canterbury - posted Mon., Aug. 26, 2013
The Quinebaug Kennel owners hope their property will soon hold New England cottontail rabbits. Photo by Denise Coffey.
The Quinebaug Kennel owners hope their property will soon hold New England cottontail rabbits. Photo by Denise Coffey.

Quinebaug Kennels is at the end of a dirt drive that winds through a few acres of woods in Canterbury. There are signs posted to drive slow; dogs may be exercising, they read. Fields lie on either side of the road where owner Jennifer Broome puts her dogs through their paces. She raises and trains black Labs and German shorthaired pointers and provides obedience training for those who need help with their dogs. She and husband Jason Smith do this on a bucolic 100-acre farm. But they will soon clear-cut more than 12 acres of the pristine land.

The conservation-minded couple has been approved to participate in a region-wide restoration initiative to save what's left of the New England cottontail rabbit. It is currently a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Their land could be a key piece in Connecticut's effort to keep the rabbit off that list. Clear-cutting would provide the type of habitat that the rabbit needs to survive.

The New England cottontail is not the same as the Eastern cottontail, a species introduced into the area for hunting purposes in the early 1900s. The Eastern cottontail has thrived while the New England cottontail has declined. Part of the reason is loss of habitat. While Connecticut has 60 percent forestland (78 percent in the northeastern section of the state), it isn't enough. Those forests are mature and they provide little nesting and feeding opportunities for the rabbit. There has been an 86-percent decline in its population, according to some estimates. As a result, state and federal agencies have teamed up with universities across the region to save the species. 

Connecticut has a globally significant New England cottontail population, according to Judy Wilson, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We have a special place in this scheme,” she said. Patchaug State Forest has been ranked the number-one site in the entire region, and an 111-acre clearing will begin there in the fall. 

Twelve focus areas have been identified in the state using known and historical locations of the species. Those areas with their particular landscape features show potential for good habitat. And because there are large patches of state parks, land trusts and protected lands, the hope is that Connecticut will serve as an important springboard for the species recovery. Key indicators have been found in Torrington, Litchfield, Paugussett State Forest in Newtown, and private properties in both Stonington and Lyme. Results are still pending for 80 samples collected from the Scotland-Canterbury Focus Area.

What the rabbits need are young forest habitats. They need thickets, seedling and sapling growth, young forest shrubs. “If you can't walk in it, it's probably good for them,” Wilson said. And because there are so few areas in the state that provide that, part of Wilson's job is to reach out to landowners who might be interested in participating in the project.

While not a focus area, Broome and Smith will participate in the project because they believe in their responsibility as stewards of the land. And while the clear-cutting will benefit New England cottontails, it will also benefit a host of other birds and animals that need early successional habitat to survive.

Broome has a bachelor's of science degree in wildlife biology and management. She is also an avid hunter. Her goal is to create different environments conducive to other species. Forty-seven other species that require the same type of habitat as the New England cottontail are designated as having a conservation need in the state. Clear-cutting will help them as well.

She and Smith were approved for the program after a team from the University of Connecticut and the Natural Resource Conservation Service surveyed their property. They prepared a management plan that called for clearing 12 acres as well as pathways around wetlands so the animals could move from one area to another. They also provided a list of recommendations for them to follow. Funds for the initiative will help pay for the clearing work.

“I'm a conservationist,” Broome said. “I love wildlife in general. Other species will benefit from this, and it would be great to start providing habitat to bring those other species back. To have a project like this where it's going to benefit a variety of species, to me is fantastic.”

The NRCS is still encouraging landowners to submit applications for potential projects. Contact Paul Rothbart, NEC Project Manager, at paul.rothbart@ct.gov or Judy Wilson, NEC Project Biologist at judy.wilson@ct.gov.


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