When it comes to cuddly, the New England cottontail may have a leg-or at least a lucky foot-up on the snail darter, the Tipton kangaroo rat and even the spotted owl. But could a rabbit really be endangered? Long considered pests by farmers and gardeners, the nondescript brown critters have a reputation for rapid reproduction.
In fact, the New England cottontail only appears to be abundant because there are so darn many Eastern cottontails romping about, and most of us can't tell the two apart. (The endangered ones have a black spot between their ears.) John Litvaitis '75, UNH professor of wildlife ecology, estimates that the population of the New England cottontail has plummeted by 75 percent in the last 40 years. The Eastern cottontail is actually an interloper from the Midwest, imported by the thousands from the 1920s to 1950s for hunting.
Clearly the New England cottontail is the underbunny here, and in October the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made it a candidate for future listing as either endangered or threatened. Litvaitis has been studying the species for more than 15 years, trying to understand its decline and how to reverse or at least stabilize it. Although the larger, bolder Eastern had been suspected of dominating the native bunnies, Litvaitis learned otherwise in a series of experiments. The two cousins seemed to get along fine, he found. But they did vary markedly in their ability to escape a predator, especially out in the open, where the prairie-bred, big-eyed Eastern had a clear advantage.
That's probably why New England cottontails stick to dense, brambly places where they can hide from predators-and leave the garden raids to their Midwestern cousins. Litvaitis believes New England cottontails have declined as forests and housing developments have grown up on what was once open farmland.
He has identified scores of areas that might make good habitat for New England cottontails, mostly on privately owned land. UNH's East and West Foss Farm properties are also on his list, though, and last fall the university brought in a wood-chipping monster called a Brontosaurus to chew up and spit out the trees on eight acres-the first of a series of sites to be rotated in and out of an "early-successional" stage suitable for native rabbits. The Foss Farm sites will also provide a showcase for landowners who want to take similar steps to bring back the bunny on their own land. Litvaitis intends to monitor the rabbits, which in winter are easy to capture live in traps baited with alfalfa or an apple.
Why bother about these bunnies? For one thing, they aren't the only creatures that would benefit. Litvaitis estimates that roughly two-thirds of New England animal species make use of the same scrubby habitat. And there's another reason: "We have over 250 birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles native to New England. But we've got only one animal whose entire range occurs in New England, and this is it."Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents