Saving the New England Cottontail Rabbit

Wildlife Experts and RWP Zoo Environmentalists attempting to repopulate the nearly endangered species

The rare New England cottontail, a native rabbit once abundant throughout this region, is getting much needed help. Biologists from the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the University of Rhode Island have teamed up with Roger Williams Park Zoo and the Wildlife Management Institute to restore populations by breeding these rabbits in captivity and releasing them in natural habitat. This program has made promising progress toward boosting cottontail numbers, while additional partners continue efforts to protect and restore habitat throughout the range of this species.

The collaborative project aims to help restore sustainable cottontail populations. Currently, the species is believed to be extirpated from Vermont, with sparse populations throughout the rest of New England. Recent population surveys conducted by staff wildlife biologists from DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife and USFWS documented only one occurrence of New England cottontail in Rhode Island. Population surveys and identification of appropriate habitat for New England cottontails in Rhode Island will continue this year by project partners with the assistance of the Conservation Genetics Laboratory located at the University of Rhode Island.

Since late 2010, the partners have captured wild adult cottontails and brought them to a breeding facility housed in an off-exhibit area of the Zoo. “To try to rebuild a species, first, we have to learn if we can keep

healthy individuals in captivity,” said Lou Perrotti, Director of Conservation Programs at the Zoo. “We’ve learned that we can. We’ve also learned that we can successfully breed these wild animals in captivity and raise the young from birth through weaning. Now, we are testing whether the captive born babies can be released to a wild setting and survive the winter.”

On November 11, the offspring of the wild rabbits, nine bunnies aged three to four months old, were released at Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in a one-acre habitat surrounded by predator-proof fencing. This will allow them to become acclimated to a natural environment without predation pressure. They will later be released from the pen into the wild. “So far,” says Perrotti, “they seem to be doing well. Come spring, we’ll have a better idea of whether we’ve developed husbandry protocols that can succeed on a larger scale.”

This spring, DEM will oversee a pilot release of rabbits bred at the Zoo. It is planned that rabbits will be released on an island in Narragansett Bay to determine if the animals can survive and reproduce, potentially to become the source population for other restoration sites in Rhode Island.

“The cottontail’s habitat needs are shared by many other species,” noted DEM Director Janet Coit, “so there are multiple benefits to this conservation initiative. We are quite enthusiastic about our ongoing efforts with the Zoo and other partners to restore sustainable populations of this native species.”

“The wide-range effort to save this native animal depends on the expertise and collaboration of partners like those involved in this project,” says Anthony Tur, Endangered Species Specialist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “Thanks to the dedication of the zoo staff and others, we are now prepared to expand the program to achieve meaningful conservation goals for the cottontail.”

RI DEM has monitored rabbits in the state for the past 60 years. Two cottontail species currently exist in Rhode Island: the native New England cottontail and another similar looking non-native rabbit, the

Eastern cottontail, which was introduced during the 1930s from Missouri. While the non-native Eastern cottontail population is widespread and abundant, the native rabbit has declined perilously since that time, according to DEM biologists. The idea to use captive breeding of natives as one potential solution for saving the New England cottontail was agreed upon by DEM, RWPZ and USFWS, the three principal partners working in Rhode Island to save the rabbit. Partners from all six New England states have contributed to the development of this project, including biologists from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection who captured the first New England cottontails and delivered them to the Roger Williams Park Zoo to initiate the breeding phase. Genetics testing at the University of Rhode Island confirmed they were indeed New England cottontails. A Captive Breeding Working Group comprised of biologists from all six New England states and researchers from URI and the University of New Hampshire helps to inform and guide the process of transition from the breeding phase through repopulation efforts.

Funding for the New England cottontail restoration project has come from a wide variety of sources including the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid Wildlife Restoration Program, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Rhode Island, and Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Roger Williams Park Zoo, one of the oldest in the nation, is Rhode Island’s number one outdoor family and tourist attraction and is also a leader in conservation efforts undertaken by a zoo of its size. The Zoo has received numerous awards for environmental education, and conservation work done locally and around the world, caring for species that without human intervention would face certain extinction. Roger Williams Park Zoo is supported and managed by the
Rhode Island Zoological Society and is owned by the City of Providence.

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