As a result, the cottontail was named a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2006, a candidacy the Trustees hope does not come to fruition. And it’s not just for the animals’ sake: If the rabbits are designated as endangered, official measures to protect the animal would result in greater restrictions for landowners residing in cottontail habitats. “The goal is not to list the animal,” Hopping says. “The goal is to restore the species.”
Work on the Trustees’s project site, a 50-acre parcel inside the Mashpee River Reservation, bordering Quinaquisset Avenue, got underway in February and finished in May. Workers harvested and removed up to 80 percent of the black and white oaks and white pines that make up the tree canopy in designated areas of the site. This clearing of trees, says Hopping, allows sunlight to reach the ground, inspiring the growth of low bushes, shrubs, and small plants that serve as the rabbits’ home. “The species really requires large areas of very dense shrubs,” Hopping says. “[The rabbit] wants to stay concealed under cover at all times.”
Hopping says dense undergrowth—a thicket—provides shelter for the cottontail as it travels back and forth in search of food. As trees in the area grow taller and the canopy closes in, smaller plants below fare poorly, diminishing the habitat for rabbits and other small woodland animals. When a large area of habitat fragments into smaller patches, Hopping says the rabbit must venture out from protection to find food, naturally putting itself in the path of predators like hawks, owls, fishers, and, in developed areas, cats and dogs. The trouble for the animal is simple, Hopping says: “Everybody likes rabbit.”
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- Posted in Nature