Bringing Back A Rabbit
By: Elsa H. Partan
A medium-sized brown and gray rabbit is driving people on Cape Cod to crawl on their hands and knees through the snow, searching for signs of it. It is the New England cottontail, one of the rarest species in the Northeast.
Stewardship Coordinator James P. Rassman of the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (WBNERR), Director Quan Tobey of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Environmental and Natural Resources Department, and John P. Kelly of the Massachusetts Army National Guard have combined their efforts to help increase the numbers of the New England cottontail in parts of Mashpee, Falmouth, Sandwich, and at Camp Edwards on the Massachusetts Military Reservation.
The effort, which expanded last month with a species identification training session attended by representatives of more than two dozen groups across the region, is hoped to provide a clear sense of how many of the rabbits there are in the area, document current habitat, identify potential new habitat, and, later this year, create new habitat to help restore the number of New England cottontails.
“We know that they’re here. We just don’t know how many,” said Tony Perry, a field worker in the tribe’s natural resources department who has been helping with the cottontail project.
Since 1960, the rabbit has vanished from 86 percent of the places it lived, according to federally funded studies. The New England cottontail is now one of just two species at the highest federal priority level in the entire Northeast, from Maine to West Virginia. An endangered species listing is the only higher level of priority.
US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Anthony Tur, the federal official in charge of the New England cottontail’s status, said local efforts could help pull the rabbit back from the brink.
Declaring the cottontail endangered would have far-reaching consequences on land use in areas where the rabbit has been documented, including parts of Mashpee, Sandwich, and elsewhere on Cape Cod, Mr. Rassman said.
An endangered species act listing can halt a project as simple as a new hiking trail and ironically, even make habitat improvement projects more cumbersome, he said.
“If you’re anyone from the most strident environmentalist to the most strident developer, you don’t want this species listed,” Mr. Rassman said.
Declaring the indigenous cottontail endangered would also have implications for hunters, according to Mr. Perry. Because the New England cottontail is difficult to distinguish from the more common rabbit species found on Cape Cod—difficult even for scientists, much less hunters with only a fleeting moment to decide whether to shoot—the possibility of shooting an endangered species would make hunting rabbits essentially off-limits, Mr. Perry said.
Mr. Rassman said that many people are confused to hear that a rabbit is endangered because they frequently see rabbits hopping around their yards. Mr. Rassman said those are likely Eastern cottontails, a rabbit that was imported from other parts of the country about a century ago. Even though the two animals are difficult to tell apart, there is no evidence that the two species are capable of interbreeding. The Eastern cottontail has an advantage over its cousin because it has a larger eye and can detect a predator at twice the distance. To avoid predators, the New England cottontail stays off lawns and out of sight in tangled, thick brush.
“If you can move through the woods, you’re not in New England cottontail habitat,” Mr. Rassman said.
A recent study by the University of New Hampshire showed that Cape Cod is one of the few places in Massachusetts where the New England cottontail continues to survive. “Because we’re coastal and we get a lot of salt spray, it’s hard to make it as a tree. It’s better to be a shrub. Rabbits want brush and shrubs; they don’t want trees,” Mr. Rassman said.
George F. Green Jr., assistant director of the tribe’s natural resources department, said the trend in recent years on the Cape has been toward development on one end of the spectrum and conservation on the other end.
But the conservation land tends to be left to grow wild, with no management—a trend that has removed the in-between habitat needed by the cottontail, Mr. Tobey said.
There used to be much more of that brushy habitat when Native Americans were farming the Cape, according to biologists. Historically, native people in New England burned an area, farmed it for a few years, and then moved on. For 10 to 15 years as the forest was growing back, the brushy new growth would be ideal habitat for the New England cottontail, providing both food and protection from predators. When trees grew in, shading out the undergrowth, the rabbits would move to another recently cleared patch.
In the time before native people farmed New England, scientists think the rabbits relied on forest fires and even hurricanes to create their needed habitat.
Mr. Rassman said he is optimistic that by removing trees and perhaps using prescribed burns, he and his partners will see improvement in the numbers of New England cottontails.
“It’s a rabbit. If you create the habitat, they’re going to reproduce,” Mr. Rassman said.
But he acknowledges that people may protest the cutting of trees on town land or in the nature reserve because it runs counter to their ideas of preservation.
“People are going to be like, whoa, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that idea. But the truth is, the species needs an area where trees have been removed,” Mr. Rassman said.
At a seminar offered by state and federal wildlife agencies and the Mashpee Wampanoag natural resources department last month at WBNERR, Mr. Rassman, Mr. Tobey, Mr. Perry and others learned how to survey for rabbits by looking for droppings, or pellets. In order to find the pellets, Mr. Rassman said it is important to look for them between 24 and 36 hours after a snowfall. The snow helps make the pellets visible and proves that they are recent. Because they will go through DNA testing, the pellets have to be put in a jar without being touched, Mr. Rassman said.
“You’re out there in the snow, it’s cold. You’re crawling around in the briars, and you’re trying to collect rabbit poop off the ground and into a little jar without touching it,” Mr. Rassman said. “It is not for the faint of heart.”
“The nastiest areas is where you have to go,” Mr. Tobey said.
“You just have to go out there and do it,” Mr. Perry said.
Mr. Rassman and Mr. Tobey got to use their new knowledge right away, when a storm dropped nearly two feet of snow just three days after the seminar.
Mr. Perry said they plan on going out again after the next snowstorm.
Mr. Rassman has not yet received the DNA analysis from the pellets they collected. In addition to the pellets, Mr. Perry was given two skulls by a local hunter who found them on state conservation land in Sandwich. The skulls were sent to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program office in Westboro last week, Mr. Rassman said.
An expert from that office said they looked promising, though the final analysis is not complete.
The tribe’s efforts are focused mainly on the sprawling, more than 4,000-acre Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge, which will be the target of several rabbit traps that Mr. Perry will be distributing and monitoring as part of the effort.
“The refuge is a great opportunity to find out what’s good habitat now, and what could be good,” Mr. Green said.
Up at Camp Edwards, Mr. Kelly, of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, has already put radio collars on two New England cottontails and expects to collar eight more rabbits in the coming weeks or months. Mr. Kelly said the collared rabbits may show him the location of habitat he was not aware of, and possibly show there are more New England cottontails on the base than originally thought.
“When you’re looking for stuff, you find it,” he said.
Mr. Kelly’s experience with the New England cottontail goes back 20 years, when he studied it as an undergraduate at Northeastern University. At the base, he has collected six pellet samples and found one skull.
The pellet collecting work may not be glamorous, but Mr. Green said the project is representative of the department’s broad effort to emphasize traditional values and ways of living.
He pointed to the department’s aquaculture project, growing oysters and clams in Popponesset Bay, as another example. The project is hoped to help clean up the bay by removing nitrogen from the ecosystem. And not only did tribe members historically eat shellfish, he said, but in the 19th century there were oystering businesses in Mashpee, like Pells Best, owned and operated by tribe members.
Likewise, the push to bring back the native cottontail harks back to an earlier time, with implications today—it is creating a habitat that existed here years ago but has since grown over. And it may both preserve hunting and prevent the consequences of seeing the New England cottontail become endangered.
“That is what our department is all about: our traditional ways, maintaining them. Our aboriginal freedoms, maintaining them. And maintaining a healthy ecosystem that can support all these things,” Mr. Green said.
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