Mashpee Refuge a "Bright Spot" for Native Cottontails, Bats

By Sam Houghton, Mashpee Enterprise

Mashpee, MA – The Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge continues to be a rare bright spot for two species: the Northern long-eared bat and the New England cottontail. And the management of the refuge may have helped with their survival.

That was the message from a talk at Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve on Monday, April 17, entitled “Bats & Bunnies: Managing Habitat for Seldom Seen Mammals.”

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New England cottontail collared with radio transmitter. Biologists can follow the movements of cottontails wearing transmitters./B. Tefft

In addition to showcasing rabbit traps, droppings, and transmitting devices, Eileen McGourty, wildlife and fisheries biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, explained the work the agency has done at the refuge to track these two rare native animals.

White nose syndrome, a fungus, has wiped out upward of 98 percent of Northern long-eared bats; the bat was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2015.

Prior to the listing, in 2012, Ms. McGourty began to take acoustic bat samples throughout the Mashpee refuge and found evidence of the species’ presence. Last July, she worked with the Biodiversity Research Institute team, a nonprofit out of Portland, Maine, and mist-netted bats over several nights. The team tacked up two large but thin nets in the woods, which would trap bats flying through the night.

Over six nights of mist-netting, they trapped 70 bats, tagging them and taking measurements before releasing them. Of the 70 bats, 67 were big brown bats and three were the elusive Northern long-eared; of the latter species, one was a female and the other two were juveniles. In the 70 bats caught, Ms. McGourty said they found some evidence, but very little, of white nose syndrome. Through her acoustic studies, she also found evidence of Eastern red, little brown, hoary and silver-haired bats.

The fact that they found two juveniles, Ms. McGourty said, provides substantial evidence that the refuge hosts breeding grounds for the threatened Northern long-eared bat. She said that they placed a transmitter on the female bat, but found that it no longer bred. They had hoped to track the bat to a maternity roost, which would provide a better understanding of the species’ population on the refuge.

Ms. McGourty tracked the female bat for three days before the transmission antenna fell off. She was able to track the bat to three different roosting trees, all of which were red oaks within areas in which the partners of the refuge had done prescribed burns.

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Pitch pine and scrub oak provide excellent habitat for wildlife on Cape Cod./C. Fergus

Prescribed burns allow for new growth in a forest.

Ms. McGourty said that because they were only able to track one bat, they needed more samples to come up with more conclusive evidence. She said that the Fish and Wildlife Service would be mist-netting this year again. More sampling could lead to answers such as why white nose syndrome has not completely decimated the population in Mashpee.

For the New England cottontail, the region’s only native rabbit, Ms. McGourty said that the Service began surveying for the species in 2006 by finding the rabbit’s pellets; at that time, it was being considered a candidate for inclusion on the Endangered Species list.

The species had suffered greatly, mostly due to habitat loss. The native cottontail had been known to live throughout New England, but Ms. McGourty said that the native rabbit lived only in small pockets throughout the region, including on Cape Cod. The other cottontail in the area, the Eastern cottontail, is not native to the region and was likely introduced for hunting purposes, Ms. McGourty said.

When surveys began throughout New England in 2006, the first native rabbit was found near Mashpee High School, and the refuge was listed as a “bright spot” for the species’ survival.

The agency eventually tracked the rabbits and found them throughout the Mashpee refuge, typically in pitch pine forests. The native rabbits appear to prefer living in shrubs about six feet high. The shrubs need an open tree canopy under which they can grow, and also need fires to regenerate the growth, Ms. McGourty said.

The common thread between the bats and native rabbits, Ms. McGourty said, is their need for these dense habitats.

In September 2015, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the New England cottontail’s removal from consideration for Threatened or Endangered status.