A Long-Term Science-Based Approach
Wildlife researchers continue to look for New England cottontails across the species’ range. They do this by taking tissue samples from rabbits that have been found dead, usually along highways, after having been hit by cars. They also take samples from rabbits that have been captured alive in special traps. (Afterward, the rabbits are released unharmed.)
In some cases, live-trapped individuals are moved to zoos, where they become part of a captive breeding program aimed at boosting the species' health and numbers. Zoo-bred New England cottontails have been introduced to habitat throughout the species' range.
The scientists also collect rabbit pellets (droppings) in areas of likely habitat, and send them to laboratories, where their DNA can be extracted and evaluated to see whether the pellets came from New England cottontails, eastern cottontails, or snowshoe hares, which are also native to the region.
Habitat and Land Ownership Patterns
Using data on forest age, shrubland, and the confirmed presence of New England cottontails, as well as land ownership and development patterns, biologists have identified a network of Focus Areas in the six states where populations of New England cottontails remain.
Conservationists concentrate their efforts to protect, create, and renew habitat in those areas.
The recently established Great Thicket National Wildlife Refuge is designed to protect and enhance young forest and shrubland in New England cottontail Focus Areas. Ruffed grouse, American woodcock, monarch butterfly, box turtle, and many other species also benefit. The U.S. Fish and Service hopes to conserve 15,000 acres across six Northeastern states for the new refuge.
Habitat projects designed to help cottontails have been launched on federal wildlife refuges, state wildlife management areas, town and municipal holdings, and land trust properties. Biologists also work with private landowners who want to manage parts of their properties for New England cottontails and other wildlife that require young forest and shrubland.
Many such habitat projects are underway. Because most natural land in the region is privately owned, landowners are key to saving and restoring the New England cottontail.