ME Scarborough Marsh Work Aids Cottontails

By Kate Irish Collins, Keep Me Current, Falmouth, Maine

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will be cutting down trees and planting shrubs in the upland areas of the Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area this coming winter and spring to create habitat for the endangered New England cottontail rabbit.

The Maine population of New England cottontail rabbits is estimated to be less than 300, prompting the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s new project to increase the species' preferred habitat at Scarborough Marsh.

New England cottontail

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will be cutting trees and planting shrubs in upland areas of Scarborough Marsh this coming winter and spring to create habitat for the state-endangered New England cottontail rabbit./USFWS

"New England cottontails were once a common sight from Kittery to Belfast, but as old fields turned to forest, and farmland became developed, habitat for this distinctively (native) species diminished and their numbers plummeted," according to an Inland Fisheries and Wildlife press release.

The rabbits need shrubland and young forests to thrive, according to the department, which first cut back 21 acres of land in the Scarborough Marsh in 2011 to encourage the New England cottontail to move back in.

The Scarborough Marsh is the only Inland Fisheries and Wildlife management area in the state with documented New England cottontail use, which is why the department is planning to cut down even more trees, plant shrubs and work to minimize the spread of invasive plants in the coming months.

The goal is to create "young forest habitat that will (also) benefit a number of other species such as yellow warblers, Eastern towhees and the American woodcock," the department press release added.

"What we are working toward providing (in Scarborough) is a rare habitat type in southern Maine," Cory Stearns, a wildlife biologist with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said this week. "Shrubland and dense young forest were once more common, but the habitat has declined, primarily because of forest maturation."

He said that even with the timber removal and the effort to create more shrubland areas suitable to the New England cottontail, "it takes a few years for the habitat to grow enough to become suitable and then it can take some time for the rabbits to find and colonize it."

Charlie Todd, the endangered and threatened species coordinator at Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said, "The widespread loss of brushy habitats is the key reason why (New England cottontails) have greatly declined in in Maine."

And, he said, "the remnant patches of brushy habitat that New England cottontails live in are small and isolated from each other. (So), the rabbits that exist in these small patches are very vulnerable to (extinction). These were the key factors for listing the species as endangered under state law in 2007."

Kelly Boland, Maine's New England cottontail restoration coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge, said that this past weekend, volunteers planted more than 3,000 shrubs on refuge land near Winnick Woods in Cape Elizabeth to make the area more attractive to New England cottontails.

"Your best chance at catching a glimpse of the cottontails" is at either Two Lights or Crescent Beach state parks in Cape Elizabeth, Boland said, or on property owned and maintained by the Scarborough Land Trust.

She added, "Conservation of a rare species is not a quick process, but we are starting to see some signs of success. Despite a drastic decline of the species since mid century, we have not lost the rabbit in this area. We can make a difference but we need to do it now."

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(The 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.)