Camp Edwards, Upper Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Bunnies and UXO

"Scrub oak is a resilient plant," says John Kelly, a biologist with the U.S. Army at Camp Edwards, a 14,000-acre National Guard training center 50 miles southeast of Boston.

Cottontail about to be fitted with radio-collar

This New England cottontail will be outfitted with a radio-collar, then monitored by Army biologists./J. Kelly

"A howitzer shell can land right on a scrub oak, and the plant will survive," Kelly says. "The upper stems may be obliterated, but the root system will send up new shoots." In times past, artillery rounds sparked fires on parts of Camp Edwards, leaving burn scars that today are stiff with scrub oak, which shrugs off fire as readily as it survives being blown up.

Camp Edwards, in Barnstable County, is the largest chunk of undeveloped land on upper Cape Cod. It includes some great young-forest habitat: 2,200 acres known as the Impact Area, an artillery practice zone from World War II until 1996.

The Impact Area

The Impact Area is the best remaining habitat for New England cottontails on Cape Cod. "It may support the largest remaining population of New England cottontails anywhere in the species' range," Kelly says. The New England cottontail needs dense brush where it can feed on plants while evading hawks, owls, foxes, and coyotes. Today this regional rabbit is rare and getting rarer, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently considering listing it as an endangered species. (To learn more about the New England cottontail, visit newenglandcottontail.org.)

"On Camp Edwards, it's all about the scrub oak," Kelly continues, describing the tough, head-high tree with wry humor: "That plant will rip the shirt off your back, knock your hat off, and steal your radio." The relatively open canopy in a stand of young scrub oak lets enough light reach the ground so that other wildlife food plants grow densely – plants like huckleberry, blueberry, and assorted weeds and grasses.

Dense scrub-oak habitat

Measuring density of scrub oak. New England cottontails love such thickets./J. Kelly

"This tangled habitat provides a home for cottontails, along with birds like Eastern towhees and brown thrashers and reptiles like box turtles," Kelly says. In all, more than 65 kinds of wildlife need young forest and shrubland for their very existence.

Kelly and fellow biologist Annie Curtis are studying how New England cottontails use scrub-oak habitat. They set traps on the edges of roads that cross the Impact Area and put radio-collars on the rabbits they capture. The biologists check the bunnies' locations four times a week. Kelly and Curtis keep to the roads and don't set foot inside the Impact Area where the rabbits roam: They don't want to chance stumbling onto UXO, a military acronym for unexploded ordnance, dangerous devices that can range from live hand grenades to large explosive shells.

So far, it looks like the cottontails mainly use scrub-oak areas that have burned in the past. Individual home ranges can be large: a female New England cottontail will hang around on 32 acres, while a male will cover 40 acres. On sprawling Camp Edwards, rabbits may use bigger home ranges than in other places where the land is broken up by housing and development.

Keeping the Habitat Wildlife-Friendly

The Impact Area offers great cover for wildlife today, but like any habitat, it's not a steady-state environment. "Since artillery practice no longer takes place on Camp Edwards, the vegetation has been aging," Kelly notes, "with pitch pines invading the burned areas and shading out the scrub oaks and other plants."

Prescribed burn on Massachusetts Military Reserve

Controlled burning recreates a natural process to renew important wildlife habitat./J. Kelly

The Army biologists, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, use fire to renew habitat on Camp Edwards. Carefully controlled fires burn off the vegetation on management units both in and outside of the Impact Area. Following the fires, vegetation – including scrub oak – grows back more densely. Since the late 1990s, the conservationists have burned some 1500 acres, doing, in a logical fashion, what cannon fire (and, for that matter, lightning and uncontrolled wildfires) did in the past.

Says Kelly, "Prescribed burning promotes safety by consuming fuel on the ground – dead branches, leaves, pine needles – making it less likely that a big, out-of-control fire will happen. It restores rare plants and wildlife whose life cycles depend on fire. And, as an exercise, it's useful in military training."

Burning creates habitat for New England cottontails along with American woodcock, prairie warblers, Northern bobwhites, box turtles, and black racers – all Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Massachusetts and other northeastern states.

The Greater Landscape

Kelly considers the Impact Area "a core habitat from which we can create sinuous fingers of rabbit-friendly scrub oak that will let cottontails move into other parts of the base and into the larger landscape." Near Camp Edwards are several tracts of public land, including Crane Wildlife Management Area (a Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife property) and Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge (administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), plus lands owned by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and the Town of Mashpee where conservationists are making even more young-forest habitat.

"This is a great project for a beleaguered species," says Kelly. "We're able to study the cottontails' response as we create and renew their habitat. And what the Army is doing to help this dwindling animal benefits dozens of other kinds of wildlife in the bargain."

Funding and Partners

Massachusetts Army National Guard, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (New England Field Office, Southern New England – New York Bight Coastal Program, Eastern Massachusetts NWR Complex), University of Rhode Island, Wildlife Management Institute. Contact John Kelly at 508-968-5848 or john.kelly19@us.army.mil.