Cranberry Mountain Wildlife Management Area, Hudson Valley, New York

Carving Out Cottontail Habitat in a Forested Setting

Cranberry Mountain Wildlife Management Area includes 469 mainly forested acres, along with some grassy and weedy fields, on a mountain where New York’s Putnam and Dutchess counties come together. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) owns and manages the property. Open to the public, the WMA is maintained as wildlife habitat. It’s also in a Focus Area for conserving the New England cottontail, the rabbit species native to New England and New York east of the Hudson River.

New England cottontail in habitat

New England cottontails, woodcock, wild turkeys, and songbirds will thrive in new young forest at Cranberry Mountain WMA./V. Young

The New England cottontail population has been falling throughout the region for more than 50 years as the animal’s preferred young forest habitat has dwindled. Cranberry Mountain WMA has a small population of New England cottontails. To make more of the habitat that these rabbits need, conservationists brought in a large machine to chew down trees that were shading out or preventing the growth of the low, thick, shrubby vegetation that cottontails need for finding food, raising young, and surviving winter. The machine – known as a “brontosaurus” for its vegetation-munching capabilities – went to work in the winter of 2014.

A brontosaurus has weight-distributing tracks, so it doesn’t compact or rut the ground or do as much damage to low-growing plants as a wheeled vehicle might. The brontosaurus can make a trail into an area, then reach out 30 feet on each side with its boom – which ends in a tooth-studded Fecon drum spinning at high speed – and reduce smaller standing trees to chips. Doing this work on top of snow cover in winter avoided harming turtles and other reptiles that hibernate underground. Also, birds and mammals weren’t breeding at that time.

The brontosaurus worked on two sites at Cranberry Mountain, one 4 acres and the other 9 acres. The machine removed enough trees so that the remaining forest canopy amounted to less than 20 percent coverage. “We chose this treatment method because there was very little timber value in the 4-acre stand, and because we wanted to minimize impacts to damp soils in the 9-acre area,” says Ted Kendziora, a habitat biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, who helped design the habitat-enhancing project.

Shrubs and Small Trees

Says NYDEC biologist Nate Ermer, “We’re looking to create a two-tiered shrub layer through tree removal.” In the wake of the brontosaurus, low-bush and high-bush blueberry and other native shrubs will grow back with renewed vigor, along with witch hazel (a shrubby tree) as well as the dense shoots of red maples, oaks, and other larger trees. Non-native invasive shrubs provide food and habitat for wildlife on the WMA, and these were chewed down to get them to grow back more densely and to give the native shrubs on the site a chance to thrive in the sunlight that can now make it down to ground level.

Amanda Cheeseman, a graduate student in the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestery, is studying the ecology of New England cottontails in the Hudson Valley.

Image

Biologist Nate Ermer, left, and graduate student Amanda Cheeseman walk through a management area where a machine has reduced trees to chips, step one in creating new young forest./C. Fergus

She is looking at the species’ population, what kinds of habitat the rabbits use, and how they interact with predators and Eastern cottontails. (Eastern cottontails are not native to the area but were brought in during the twentieth century. In much of the region, Eastern cottontails outnumber the native New England cottontails.) To get a base-line on the New England cottontail population at Cranberry Mountain WMA, Cheeseman box-trapped and radio-collared New England cottontails and will monitor these and other individual rabbits in the future to see how they use the thick young trees and shrubs that will grow back on the two managed areas. Emily Gavard, also a grad student with SUNY's ESF program, is studying parasites and nutrition in New England cottontails.

While the habitat work at Cranberry Mountain was designed to help New England cottontails, it will also benefit many other kinds of wildlife. Wild turkeys will hide their nests in the new thick habitat. American woodcock, redstarts, catbirds, chestnut-sided warblers, Eastern towhees, and yellow warblers are just a few of the birds that will nest and feed in the regrowing young forest. Box turtles and wood turtles will find abundant insects and fruits to eat in the new habitat.

Visitors use an extensive trail system at Cranberry Mountain WMA for hiking, cross-country skiing, and hunting. Folks should see a much greater variety of wildlife following the recent habitat work.

Funding and Partners

New York Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

How to Visit

Cranberry Mountain WMA is east of New York Route 22. Two parking areas can be accessed from Stagecoach Road. For more information, contact NYDEC biologist Nathan Ermer, 845-256-3047, nmermer@gw.dec.state.ny.us