New England Cottontail Rabbit
New England Cottontail Rabbit
Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid Wildlife Restoration Program
Roger Williams Park Zoo staff
Rhode Island Zoological Society staff and volunteers
Director, Conservation Programs
(401) 785-3510 ext. 335
The rare New England cottontail, a native rabbit once abundant throughout this region, is getting much needed help. Biologists from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (CTDEP), 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.
Why is this rabbit endangered?
In the 1930's the non-native Eastern cottontail was introduced from Missouri. While the non-native Eastern cottontail population is widespread and abundant, the native New England cottontail has declined perilously since that time, according to DEM biologists. 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.
What is the Zoo doing to help?
Since late 2010, the Zoo and its 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, we first 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, 2011, 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.”
The first nine offspring spent their first winter adjusting from living at the Zoo to living in the wild, learning to forage and fend for themselves in a predator-free environment. In March of 2012, six of the nine rabbits were fitted with radio collars and released into the wild on Patience Island, in Narragansett Bay. Their activity and health will be monitors to see if they survive and reproduce. As of November 2012, all six were still alive, which means they are successfully foraging and avoiding predators. The remaining three rabbits were brought back to the Zoo and added to the breeding group.
A second group was released in September, 2012 onto Patience Island. A small group has also been sent to Great Bay, New Hampshire and will be used to boost declining populations in that state.
The idea to use captive breeding of natives as one potential solution for saving the New England cottontail was agreed upon by WDI, RIDEM, 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.
What is the future of this project?
This collaborative project aims to help restore sustainable cottontail populations. “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.”
As of early 2013, the Zoo had bred 36 rabbits, with the goal of doubling the number of young rabbits born and raised here at the Zoo during the year to further the reintroduction initiatives on a larger scale.