FWS Removes New England Cottontail as Candidate for Endangered Species List

FWS Removes New England Cottontail as Candidate for Endangered Species List

On Friday, September 11, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the New England cottontail does not need to be placed on the federal endangered species list because its numbers are rising and its habitat is increasing thanks to "epic collaboration" among conservation partners. Those partners include states, the federal government, scientists, private landowners, companies, land trusts, municipalities, tribal members and NGOs. The Wildlife Management Institute helped coordinate conservation efforts and administered grants for young forest restoration in the region.

The announcement took place on land owned by Rick and Donna Ambrose, who recently conducted a habitat-creation project with funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The Ambrose property is in the Seacoast New England Cottontail Focus Area in southern New Hampshire. After the formal portion of the event, Secretary Jewell joined Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire in releasing a pair of cottontails into a patch of the thick, tangled young forest habitat that the species needs.

Over the last 50 years, the New England cottontail has lost more than 80 percent of its habitat as the result of people developing the landscape and thick, shrubby areas growing up to become open woods, which lack the ground-level food and hiding cover that cottontails require. The loss of young forest and shrubland has also led to declines in more than 60 kinds of wildlife in the Northeast, including woodcock, ruffed grouse, a broad range of songbirds, bobcats, snowshoe hares, and box and wood turtles. Other potential problems faced by the New England cottontail include competition for habitat with the introduced eastern cottontail (now more abundant in the region than the native species), habitat fragmentation and predation in marginal habitat areas.

Secretary Jewell described the success of the New England Cottontail Regional Initiative as "an incredible model for conservation that we will be talking about across the country." She noted that "habitat does not know political boundaries," and credited foresters, farmers, birdwatchers and hunters with playing key roles in the rabbit's recovery.

In addition to recognizing the many partners involved in the initiative, Secretary Jewell called out the Wildlife Management Institute, describing the organization as "the facilitator of this New England cottontail effort." WMI, she continued, is "keeping people together" on the six-state project, which takes in parts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. WMI has helped disburse more than $25 million toward New England cottontail restoration since 2009. Major funding has come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), NRCS, state and tribal wildlife grants, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Partners have used funds to acquire and manage habitat, conduct research, monitor cottontail behavior and populations and do outreach in the six states. As a result of these and other efforts, more than 18,000 acres of young forest and shrubland habitat now exist or will soon be created on public and private land as conservationists close in on a 27,000-acre goal by 2030. Habitat and population goals are described in the science-based New England Cottontail Conservation Strategy, co-authored by FWS endangered species biologist Anthony Tur and Steven Fuller of WMI. The strategy is available on www.newenglandcottontail.org.

New England cottontail numbers had declined across the species' range since the 1960s. Federal officials needed to decide either to list the cottontail as "threatened" or "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act, or to determine that conservation partners' collective efforts were capable of reversing that decline. Putting the cottontail on the endangered species list would protect individual animals from being harmed or killed, but such a designation would also trigger additional layers of bureaucratic review that could slow down habitat-creation efforts.

At the New Hampshire event, FWS Director Dan Ashe called the New England Cottontail Initiative "a model for combining science, resources and public-private collaboration to advance the conservation of a species previously destined for federal protection."

NRCS chief Jason Weller, noting that his agency was "created to empower private landowners" to make positive changes to land, soil and water resources, said the cottontail initiative represents a collaboration between private landowners, the FWS and NRCS that amounts to "conservation on a scale and pace that's unprecedented."

Senator Shaheen remarked that although we "live in a time when biodiversity is in rapid decline," that decline can be reversed. "The larger lesson to draw [from the New England cottontail conservation effort] is that we are not helpless," she said.

Numerous partners and collaborators attended the event, including Chuckie Greene, representing the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Upper Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on whose land a significant young forest habitat project has taken place. Greene offered the blessing that opened the proceedings, and noted that cottontails have been a traditional food source for his people and that an "endangered" classification would have caused difficulties. He also called the cottontail a "brother."

WMI president Steve Williams considers the New England Cottontail Initiative "one of the best examples of the benefits to conservation that can come from a coalition working together towards a common goal. We were pleased to take on the administrative and coordination duties that helped keep the partnership strong."

The event at the Ambrose farm culminated in the release of a pair of New England cottontails into recently created young forest. The release marked the first time cottontails bred in captivity had been returned to habitat on private land ? previous releases have been aimed at augmenting or starting New England cottontail populations on public land, including wildlife management areas.  The cottontails had been bred in captivity at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, from rabbits removed from the wild in areas where populations were stable. Conservationists hope the two cottontails will form the foundation of a new population in the recently created habitat ? one more step toward ensuring that New England cottontails remain a part of the region's wildlife for many generations to come. (cf)

September 15, 2015