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Bunny Business

Thanks to the Trustees of Reservations, a rabbit species in distress finds a hospitable home on the Mashpee River Reservation

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.”

In addition to the New England cottontail, the habitat restoration project also benefits other species that make the ground cover their home, including the Black Racer and hognose snakes, the box turtle, the ruffed grouse, and the whip-poor-will bird.

The Trustees received funding for the project from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The project in Mashpee is part of The New England Cottontail Initiative, a larger effort which involves agencies sharing the goal of reviving the cottontail populations from Maine to east of the Hudson River in New York. In designated regions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with private landowners such as the Trustees concerning eligibility for funding to allow habitat restoration work to be conducted on their properties. Ted Kendziora, a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the goal is to establish corridors for the cottontail to travel from one habitat to another. “We have projects going throughout the range,” says Kendziora. “It’s all inter-linked.”

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