CT Cottontail Conservationists Expand Focus to All Young Forest Wildlife

By Andrea Petrullo, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP)

This News article is drawn from the March 2017 issue of the Young Forest Initiative newsletter published by Connecticut DEEP. To read the full newsletter, see the Attachment at the bottom of this webpage.

Over the years, the New England cottontail (NEC) has served as a poster child for creating and preserving young forest habitat in Connecticut. Fifty-five of the state’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need rely on young forest, including 19 insects, 21 birds, six mammals, and nine reptiles and amphibians. Many other species spend at least part of their lives in young forest, including forest interior birds, which feed on fruit and insects in young forests to store up energy for migration.

American woodcock hen

Woodcock hen on nest. New woodcock focus areas in CT will spur creation of more young forest for wildlife, including New England cottontails./C. Fergus

As we move forward, we are broadening our scope to include all young forest dependent wildlife in Connecticut. Due to the scarcity and fragmentation of young forest in this region, these species are especially in need of our help. Many of them have been benefiting from the New England Cottontail Initiative, but the Initiative’s activities were limited to NEC focus areas.

New focus areas for American woodcock, encompassing much more of the state, have been designated based on modeling by DEEP and Wildlife Management Institute biologists. Working Lands for Wildlife projects (a program of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS) and habitat efforts that help New England cottontails will continue, but expanded opportunities to create young forest throughout the state will allow even more private landowners to join us in our efforts to help wildlife that needs young forest, including many declining species.

In order to receive project funding in 2017, landowners must apply before June 16 of this year. For more information about pursuing a project on your property, please contact NEC Project Contract Biologist Lisa Wahle at lisa.wahle@ct.gov or Nick Zito, newly hired RCPP Forester, at nicholas.zito@ct.gov.

A focus area refers to an area of biological significance to the species being targeted for management. Focus areas are determined by many factors, including where the species already occurs, and whether or not an area has landscape characteristics that have the potential to provide good habitat.

For the New England cottontail, 12 focus areas have been designated across Connecticut. These areas were created around known cottontail locations and help guide conservationists in choosing where to create young forest habitat to benefit this regional rabbit.

Until now, funding for habitat enhancement projects has been prioritized within NEC focus areas. The new woodcock focus areas will help DEEP create young forest habitat more widely throughout Connecticut.

Young forest habitat in CT

Young forest created on Roraback Wildlife Management Area. Woodcock will use this habitat, as will NEC, songbirds, and many other wild animals./C. Fergus

The young forest team welcomes a new forester, Nicholas Zito, whose work will be supported by the Regional Conservation Partners Program (RCPP), a partnership between NRCS and the Wildlife Management Institute.

The RCPP grant provides funds for forest planning and project implementation to create or enhance habitat on private lands for New England cottontails, American woodcock, and other young forest species.

Nick’s prior forestry experience includes working for the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and Connecticut DEEP. This is the first time he has worked specifically to create wildlife habitat. Even before joining us, he had tried to dispel the negative reactions many people have to clearcuts made in order to create a greater variety of habitats. He believes that we need to change the paradigm from valuing only mature forest to understanding the need for a more evenly distributed mosaic of different successional forest stages.

Nick will be reaching out to landowners in our new focus areas and writing management plans to create or maintain young forest habitat. He will also be conducting outside assessments and outreach.