Habitat Sought for New England Cottontails in Southern ME

By Michael Kelley, Staff Writer, Scarborough Leader

Scarborough Marsh has long been a popular place for birders of all skill levels to come see nature first hand, but over the last few years biologists have been working to make sure the marsh is a favorable habitat for a four-legged animal that is becoming endangered in this state.

Last week, biologists from the department of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife convened in Scarborough to discuss a project to create more habitat for the New England cottontail rabbit in the Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area off Manson Libby Road. As the name implies, the species is only native to New England, although populations can also be found east of the Hudson River in New York. The cottontail, which eats berries, grasses and shrubs, was listed as a state endangered species in Maine in 2007. Despite concern locally, a year ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the cottontail from consideration for Endangered Species Act protection.

New England cottontail habitat at Scarborough Marsh WMA, Maine

Young forest habitat at Scarborough Marsh WMA in southern Maine was created through habitat management conducted in 2011. A new project will add to this habitat on the Management Area./Michael Kelley

Corey Stearns, assistant regional wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to not list the species for federal protection because of the work wildlife agencies and private landowners in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Rhode Island have done, and continue to do, to provide more habitat for the cottontail.

"The species is rebounding. There is a long way to go, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife felt the states were doing a good enough job, it didn’t need a federal listing," Stearns said.

The agencies have teamed up to create a regional strategy to help the cottontail population rebound. Andrew Johnson, who works for the Wildlife Management Institute and serves as a cottontail consultant for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the goal in Maine is to provide an additional 5,200 acres by 2030. So far, he said, 1,000 to 2,000 acres of habitat has been created.

"This is definitely important for the New England cottontail rabbit. It's our native rabbit," he said. "It is disappearing in the state. It used to be in nine counties."

Now, Johnson said, the cottontail is currently only in Cumberland and York counties. The last "stronghold" for the rabbits in this area is in Cape Elizabeth and eastern Scarborough. They can also be found in the Wells area. Stearns and Johnson estimate there are less than 300 left in the state.

Biologist explains cottontail habitat project

Corey Stearns, Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, explains to Carole Brush of Eastern Trail Alliance the extent of a habitat project at Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area designed to help the New England cottontail rabbit rebound./Michael Kelley

According to Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, "New England cottontails were once a common sight from Kittery to Belfast, but as old fields turned into forest and farmland became developed, habitat for this distinctly New England species diminished and their numbers plummeted." While the species is certainly susceptible to predators such as hawks, owls, fox, coyote, weasels and even house cats and dogs, Johnson said the biggest threat has been loss of habitat. Brad Zitske, also an assistant regional wildlife biologist in Gray, said the cottontail is more prone to predation because it doesn't change colors in winter like the snowshoe hare.

The hope is a section of the Scarborough Marsh WMA will provide more dense shrubbery for the cottontail. As part of this plan, trees will be removed in the area in January and February 2017 to create a better habitat for the rabbit, as well as yellow warblers, eastern towhees and the American woodcock.

"We are doing this in the name of the cottontail, but there are dozens of species that have been declining that use this habitat," Johnson said.

Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been working on cottontail habitat restoration since 2011 when 21 acres of the WMA were cut and portions of meadows and fields were left to generate new shrubs. The jury is still out whether the 2011 project will entice cottontail back to the marsh, because Stearns said it takes five to 10 years for the habitat to mature to the point where it is attractive to the species again.

According to a release from IFW, the Scarborough land is being targeted because it is the only IFW management area with documented New England cottontail use.

Biologists discuss habitat project at Scarborough Marsh WMA

Maine Fisheries and Wildlife biologists Corey Stearns, Brad Zitske and Eric Hoar discuss the New England cottontail habitat project at Scarborough Marsh WMA. Approximately 300 New England cottontails are believed to remain in Maine./Michael Kelley

"IFW doesn't have a lot of land within the [New England] cottontail focus area. This is really the closest site they own and manage to existing cottontail populations," Johnson said.

Stearns said cottontails were documented in two areas of the project site in 2009, but it seems that cottontail population is no longer living in the marsh.

"Generally any records within 10 years are considered current populations, but we've done enough surveying in recent years that we don't believe they are here," Stearns said before a walk of the property late last week.

"We have seen records from the marsh, but they tend to be older records. We still think they are in the Prouts Neck area and the eastern part of Scarborough, but we don't survey every area, so it is possible they are in other areas as well," Stearns said.

Much of the marsh area where cottontails once lived, Stearns said, has been overwhelmed with mature pine trees and plants that choke out the dense shrubs the cottontail prefer.

The work will begin with a 6-acre clearcut and 2-acre patch cut on a swath of land along the Eastern Trail behind the Scarborough Department of Public Works building. Johnson said although there was some concern from members of the public about impacting this area voiced at a public meeting Sept. 27, this section is "far more likely" to be used by the cottontail than anywhere else in the project area.

While a number of areas will see cutting, Stearns said the contractor will also be planting some shrubs as well. The work, however, will not happen unless there are favorable conditions.

Even if the rabbits don't naturally find the new habitat once mature, the marsh may have a population through captive breeding and translocation.

"We might be able to bring them here in the future. We are still working out the planning," Stearns said.

The six-state group, Stearns said, is working with Roger Williams Zoo in Rhode Island, Queens Zoo in New York City and Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells on the captive breeding and translocation project.

Captive-bred cottontails have already been introduced to sections of New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Since 2011 when the project started, more than 110 rabbits have been released.

"There's been quite a bit of success with the population from captive breeding in Rhode Island," Stearns said.

Read the article online at the Scarborough Leader.

(The Scarborough Marsh project has received funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through the New England Forests and Rivers Fund. Scarborough Marsh WMA is a demonstration area for New England cottontail habitat. New England's native rabbit requires young forest, as do more than 60 other regional species of greatest conservation need.)