New England's Rabbit Loses More than 80 Percent of its Habitat: Peter Cottontail Disappears

First Posted: Apr 01, 2013 09:45 AM EDT

Peter Cottontail, the famed rabbit that starred in Thornton Burgess's children's stories, may be losing his home. The New England cottontail's population numbers are slowly declining mainly due to the disappearance of its natural habitat.

The New England cottontail prefers an environment of shrubs, saplings, weeds and vines--what is known as young forest. Only a century ago, the rabbits swarmed gardens across New England. Ironically, though, their population numbers have declined not due to human activity, but rather due to a lack of it.

Since the rabbits prefer young forest, activities that involved cutting down trees for cropland actually allowed the creatures to thrive. As these activities declined, agricultural lands reverted back to forest which matured over time. Now, more than 80 percent of the New England cottontail habitat has disappeared over just the past 50 years, according to the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute.

In order to preserve the rabbit and prevent it from being listed as an endangered species, conservationists are now attempting to restore some of its habitat. A new program aims to restore shrub lands across the northeast and use captive breeding in order to boost rabbit population numbers. Over the next five years, Working Lands for Wildlife, a new partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NRCS, will assist private land owners to create and enhance approximately 2,500 acres of shrub thicket and early successional forest.

"We're making headway, putting habitat on the ground in some really key places," said Anthony Tur, an endangered species specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in an interview with the Huffington Post. "It's encouraging."

The rabbit is actually the only species that's native to the region east of the Hudson River. Yet there is another invasive species that is slowly taking over the New England cottontail's natural range. The Eastern cottontail has multiplied steadily after its first introduction in the early 20th century for hunting purposes. With slightly larger eyes, the New England cottontail's cousin is adept at seeing and avoiding predators.

Despite the competition, though, the New England cottontail could make a comeback--as long as it has enough space. The current restoration project could also have added benefits for 59 other native species, including turkeys and deer.

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