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New England Cottontail Recovery

Hunting Regulations Icon Rhode Island Hunting

Recovery efforts in rhode island and across the northeast

By Dylan Ferreira, Senior Wildlife Biologist, RI DEM & T.J. McGreevy, Jr., Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor, URI

Rhode Islanders can expect to see an abundance of rabbits throughout their day. Typically, in their gardens, road sides, or lawns. These rabbits are almost always eastern cottontails, a non-native rabbit that was introduced in the early 1900s by the hundreds of thousands. However, the Northeast is home to only one native cottontail, the New England cottontail, which is dependent upon early successional (young forest) habitat. In Rhode Island, a recent study led by Dr. Bill Buffum from the University of Rhode Island (URI) found that only 1.4% of early successional habitat remains in upland areas. The decline of this habitat in Rhode Island and the Northeast region has coincided with the decline in New England cottontails. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), including deciding which of our country’s animals and plants require the law’s protection. In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the New England cottontail as a candidate species for ESA protection, which would jeopardize rabbit hunting throughout Rhode Island.

In 2010, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) established a collaboration with the Wildlife Genetics and Ecology Laboratory (WGEL) at URI to study New England cottontail. The project is currently led by Dylan Ferreira, Senior Wildlife Biologist at DFW, and Dr. T.J. McGreevy, director of the WGEL. Extensive fecal pellet surveys for cottontails in Rhode Island during the last decade have only detected New England cottontail at four locations in the state. Due to declines in the distribution of New England cottontail in Rhode Island and the region, a captive breeding program was started in 2011 at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI. In collaboration with our regional partners, wild New England cottontail were brought into captivity from throughout their range to produce offspring. These offspring were used to establish a breeding colony on Patience Island, located in the upper Narragansett Bay. Subsequently, New England cottontail born on Patience Island were used to initiate new mainland populations and augment existing populations. Some of the New England cottontail released on the mainland and on Patience Island have been fitted with radio telemetry collars that record Global Positioning System points. The location information is being used by WGEL researchers to determine their home range, movements, and survival. In 2012, the Conservation Strategy for the New England Cottontail laid out actions the region would take to address threats to the cottontail. It explained how conservation partners (federal, state, private organizations, etc.) have begun implementing those actions to help the species. In September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed New England cottontail as a candidate species, determining that listing was not warranted at that time. The decisions was made in part because of the extensive conservation actions across the region by all partners and the comprehensive conservation strategy that was in place to turn around the declining tide of the species.
The conservation of New England cottontail directly and indirectly benefits hunters and wildlife enthusiasts in Rhode Island. Cottontail are a game species in Rhode Island and can be hunted from October to February. Although not the largest mammalian game species, they are still enjoyed by those who like to eat wild rabbit and hunt with dogs. If New England cottontail were listed as federally endangered, cottontail hunting would be closed in any area where both New England cottontail and eastern cottontail co-occur because they look nearly identical. This could also close cottontail hunting throughout the state because it is difficult to know with complete certainty if New England cottontail remain in an area. State and region-wide conservation efforts directly kept the cottontail off the list. Habitat management that creates early successional habitat (https://youngforest.org/) is required for the conservation of New England cottontail, and also benefits other species, both game and non-game.
The funding for the project is from the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which is funded by an excise tax of 11% on the wholesale price for long guns, ammunition and archery equipment, and 10% for handguns. Manufacturers pay these taxes and pass the cost to the consumer (hunters, archers, and recreational shooters). Over decades, this unique user-pay funding mechanism has made our country a better place for fish and wildlife, for people who hunt and fish, and for those who enjoy venturing into nature and wildlife watching. Wildlife Restoration funds (derived from equipment excise taxes) have helped bring back healthy populations of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, wood ducks, American black bears, and beavers, to name just a few well-known species. In fact, all wildlife that share the land with these animals have benefited from habitat improvements funded by American sportsmen and women.