Once abundant in farming communities, the New England cottontail rabbit has all but disappeared from Maine in the past few decades. Today, biologists estimate that 250 to 300 cottontails remain in the state, and they’re secluded to small pockets of shrublands south of Portland.
“It’s probably the lowest population within the past 100 years,” Kelly Boland, New England cottontail restoration coordinator for Maine for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said.
But they’re not gone yet.
In an effort to revive the dwindling the population, an increasing number of Maine landowners and land trusts are joining forces with federal and state agencies to create cottontail sanctuaries — large swathes of habitat these little brown rabbits need to survive.
It’s all a part of the New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative, a collaboration among a long list of conservation partners to save New England’s only native rabbit.
The New England cottontail rabbit relies on young forests and shrublands for survival. These dense habitats, filled with brush and shrubs, provide the cover cottontails need to weather Maine’s harsh, long winters and hide from predators.
“Pretty much any predator you can imagine will eat a rabbit,” Boland said, listing coyotes, foxes, weasels, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls as a few of their common predators in Maine.
At the edge of their northern range in Maine, the cottontail historically relied on natural disturbances, such as hurricanes, floods and fires, to create the young forest they require for survival. But as the land became more populated with humans, things started to change.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of the farms in New England were abandoned and fields grew up into shrubland and young forest. Consequently, the cottontail population expanded and thrived during that time.
But it wasn’t long before much of that prime cottontail habitat either was fragmented by human development or transitioned into mature forest, which is an unsuitable habitat for the cottontail.
“The [cottontail] population went through a drastic decline,” Boland said. “Rabbits used to be up into Belfast, Maine, and now it’s Portland, maybe a little north. We’re still looking for new populations.”
Only about 3 percent of the cottontail habitat Maine had during the early 1900s remains, Boland said. In 2007, the cottontail was listed as a state endangered species, and it is a candidate for the federal “threatened species” list. USFWS will decide by Sept. 30 whether the cottontail should be federally classified as endangered or threatened.
When Boland talks with Maine residents about her work to restore the rabbit population, she often is told “there are rabbits everywhere. I see them all the time.”
Those residents almost always are talking about the snowshoe hare, a larger rabbit-like species that is abundant throughout the state. In fact, the hare is so plentiful in Maine, it’s hunted six months out of the year.
The New England cottontail, however, is Maine’s only true rabbit.
“A lot of old-timers around here know it as the cooney rabbit,” Boland said.
The difference between a cottontail rabbit and a snowshoe hare is clear straight from birth. Rabbits are born free of fur, with eyes shut. Hares, on the other hand, are born covered with fur, eyes open.
Full-grown, snowshoe hares and cottontails are similar in appearance. But upon closer inspection, snowshoe hares are larger, with larger feet. During the winter, a snowshoe hare sheds its brown summer coat for a white coat that blends in with the snowy landscape. The cottontail remains brown.
“In Maine, where we have snow cover, brown rabbits stick out,” Cory Stearns, regional wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said. “If they’re out in the open at all, they can get nailed, so they really need that thick habitat to hide from all the predators that are on the landscape.”
Maine’s last known cottontail strongholds are located in York and Cumberland counties, within 10 to 15 miles of the coast.
“We have this really good core population in Cape Elizabeth, so our goal is to maintain what we have and expand out the habitat,” Boland said.
“Here, we see them all the time,” said John Greene, property manager for Ram Island Farm, a 2,100-acre property held by the Sprague Corporation for the descendents of P. Shaw Sprague. The corporation has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 2008 to create and manage cottontail habitat on 75 acres of the property.
Creating and managing cottontail habitat generally means cutting down mature trees, creating brush piles, planting native shrubs, controlling invasive plant species and cutting or mowing maturing shrub areas to promote denser growth.
The cottontail isn’t the only animal that depends on these types of habitats. In fact, shrublands and regenerating forests are primary habitats for many New England Species of Greatest Conservation Need, including the American woodcock, blue-spotted salamander, common gray fox, chestnut-sided warbler, ruby-throated hummingbird, wood thrush, ruffed grouse and spotted turtle.
“That was amazing to us,” Greene said. “We put one of our game cameras under our brush piles, and we had possum, raccoon, birds … we had snakes, chipmunks, squirrels. I mean, I could list almost every species in that area was under that brush pile.”
There are 40 projects underway in Maine to manage more than 1,000 acres of cottontail habitat. By 2030, the initiative goal is to expand that to 5,000 acres of cottontail habitat in Maine.
“We can’t do all of that on state and federal land,” Boland said. “We are doing a lot of management on our lands, but we really rely on private land owners.”
In Scarborough, three neighboring landowners — the Scarborough Land Trust, Camp Ketcha and the MacDonald family — are working together to create cottontail habitat on their land, a place cottontails called home just a couple of decades ago.
“Creating wildlife habitat is one of the three legs of our mission,” Paul Austin, president of the Scarborough Land Trust, said. “It just made sense. We have all of this public land and we have the ability to do it, so let’s do the right thing.”
In the past few years they’ve cut down acres of mature forest, which at first confused and concerned many members of the community. But through public outreach, the land trust and Camp Ketcha explained to the community they were participating in an initiative to restore cottontails to the area. By recreating the habitat, they’re hopeful cottontails will begin living there again.
“When I tell people about what we’ve done, the first question almost always is, when do the rabbits move in?” said Thomas Doherty, executive director of Camp Ketcha, who said the project fit with the camp’s mission to serve the community and introduce children to outdoor experiences.
“We could find them this year,” Boland said. “We’ll see. We’re going to be out surveying.”
Maine landowners interested in participating in the cottontail restoration project can obtain financial and technical assistance from a number of federal programs, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Services and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, as well as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“That makes it economically feasible for people to do this management,” Andrew Johnson, New England cottontail habitat specialist for the NRCS, said. “In some cases, it might put managing forestland for wildlife on par with otherwise doing timber management for your forest.”
The decline of the New England cottontail isn’t limited to Maine. The species population is shrinking throughout New England, and states are working together to reverse the trend.
A long list of conservation partners are working to save the New England cottontail by actively creating and managing habitat across the rabbit’s six-state range. These partners include federal and state agencies, wildlife organizations, private companies, towns and municipalities, land trusts, universities, Native American tribes and foresters. The number of groups involved in the New England Cottontail Initiative is growing every year.
A part of this regional effort is a cottontail breeding program at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island. Cottontails born at the zoo already have been released into the wild in New Hampshire and on Patience Island in Rhode Island.
“Right now, we’re seeing how it works in other states, and then we’ll evaluate it and see if it could work in Maine,” Stearns said.
For more information about the efforts to revive the New England cottontail population, visit newenglandcottontail.org. To learn more about the importance of young forest on the landscape, visit youngforest.org.