The New England cottontail has a lot going for it: a whiskery face, a fluffy tail, the PR value of American literary icon Peter Rabbit. The U.S. government recently decided not to add the official moniker endangered species to that description. Still, federal conservation officials are worried enough about the iconic rabbits and their neighbors that the government has unveiled a proposal to spend around $100 million to create thicket refuges in a crowded region.
The proposed Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge would include up to 15,000 acres — about as much land as Manhattan — scattered across six northeastern states. Vast swaths of shrubland in the region have already been lost to suburban sprawl and reforestation. The refuge would preserve what remains, sheltering thicket species ranging from New England cottontails to American woodcocks, monarch butterflies to bog turtles.
Cottontails need thickets because the dense understory protects them from predators like bobcats and owls. “Rabbits have one job in life and that’s to feed somebody up the food chain,” explained John Litvaitis, a biologist at the University of New Hampshire.
Scientists aren’t sure how many cottontails are still in the wild, but they say there is clear evidence of decline over the past four decades. “We don’t actually have any data-driven estimates of the population,” said Adrienne Kovach, an ecologist also at the University of New Hampshire. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, but we do know that their populations are small.”
Nevertheless, in September the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the species as endangered, concluding that conservation efforts already in progress would be sufficient to stabilize the species. Networks of state agencies and nonprofit organizations working to protect the cottontail have been growing in recent years.
The New England Cottontail Initiative, for example, brings together dozens of organizations and agencies whose missions touch on protecting rabbits and their habitat. The initiative’s team believes the New England Cottontail has the best chances if the Northeast can protect more than 40,000 acres and reach populations over 20,000 rabbits. Both of those goals, set in 2012, are more ambitious than those set by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“What the service found was that the species did not warrant listing, specifically because the New England Cottontail Initiative was being successful,” said Rick Jacobson, director of wildlife for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and chair of the executive committee of the Cottontail Initiative. In its endangered species decision on the rabbit, Fish and Wildlife used a 2014 population estimate that found there were likely about 17,000 cottontails, but because the rabbits camouflage so effectively in the thicket and their numbers vary greatly over time, even the agency admits that headcount may not match cottontails on the ground. If the initiative can keep meeting its goals for habitat protection, said Jacobson, “I am very confident that we will achieve fully self-sustaining populations.”
But Litvaitis, the New Hampshire researcher, thinks the optimism is premature. “I actually was okay with the decision not to list it, but I was not okay with the logic that was used,” he said. “They gave the impression that the battle was won, we can all put away our shovels and the New England cottontail will be secure for now and forever. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”
The Great Thicket proposal is not a fast shovel; creating a national wildlife refuge takes much longer than a rabbit’s lifespan of a year or two. Even if the refuge proposal is approved, it could be more than a decade before the Fish and Wildlife Service actually owns land as part of the refuge. That’s because the agency only works with landowners willing to sell and must scrounge up acquisition money, estimated to run between $85 million and $130 million.
The charismatic cottontail is likely to make it easier to win public support for the refuge. But while the cottontail makes a good poster child, the refuge would protect a range of thicket species. That’s one of its strengths, said New Hampshire’s Kovach. “It’s being thought of as a refuge for a whole ecosystem.”
The ecosystem mindset also accounts for perhaps the most unusual characteristic of Great Thicket. In planning the refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t hoping for one large swath of land. Instead, the agency selected ten so-called focus areas in which to acquire land, scattered from New York to Maine. That design allows the agency to target existing shrublands for preservation, rather than trying to convert pasture or forest back to thicket, which would be more expensive and controversial.
The refuge proposal’s public review period, which ended April 3, attracted a few thousand comments, according to Meagan Racey, a spokeswoman for the Northeast region of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Many of those comments have been form letters in favor of the refuge rather than concerns, data or suggestions, she said.
If the government goes forward with the plan, humans will be welcome in the new refuge, said Tom Bonetti, who handles visitor access issues for the wildlife service in the Northeast. “We understand that you can’t just put up a fence around a national wildlife refuge and say ‘trust us’,” he said. Great Thicket would mirror most wildlife refuges in encouraging activities like hiking, birdwatching, photography and even hunting – as long as they don’t interfere with conservation goals.
But no matter how carefully planned any refuge might be, biologists say it must be part of a broader strategy. “I think that this would be great and would formalize a lot of the effort that’s already on the ground for the cottontail,” said Kovach, of the University of New Hampshire.
But she wants it accompanied by aggressive efforts to rebuild populations through captive breeding programs. Such programs already exist at Roger Williams Zoo in Rhode Island and Queens Zoo in New York and have released more than 100 rabbits in the past five years. These immigrants bring new genes to existing rabbit populations and found new populations in unoccupied habitat.
“We do need more habitat,” she said, “but we also need more rabbits to fill that space.”