(Courtesy photo)

KITTERY – Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge has partnered with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to augment the population of New England cottontail in Kittery, Maine. New England cottontails are a globally rare species which need conservation actions to recover. This spring, 10 New England cottontails were translocated to Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge property in Kittery, marking the first rabbits to be released onto refuge property in Maine. These 10 rabbits are a mix of individuals captured from a wild population in Maine and an island breeding colony in Rhode Island as part of Maine’s conservation efforts to restore the population of this imperiled species.

Refuge Wildlife Biologist, Kate O’Brien said, “We’re thrilled to be able to augment the New England cottontail population in Maine with this first ever release of rabbits onto the refuge! We thank our partners for making this possible and the many volunteers who helped us restore this (now great) habitat here in Kittery.” 

The New England cottontail is Maine’s only native rabbit and is listed as state endangered in Maine, with an estimated state-wide population of about 320 individuals within only six Maine towns. The New England cottontail population has declined dramatically over the past 50 years throughout its range primarily due to habitat loss and fragmentation. The cottontail depends on dense early successional or young forest habitat (often described as thickets) to hide from predators and forage for food. Healthy thicket habitat is steadily disappearing across Maine for several reasons including development, fragmentation, forest maturation, and the spread of invasive plants. As thicket habitat disappears, so do the animal species that depend on it. In addition to the New England cottontail, other wildlife species that are dependent on thicket include (but are not limited to) eastern towhee, American woodcock, prairie warbler, and the northern black racer snake. 

The New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative is a collaboration between state, federal, and non-government partners from across the multi-state range of the New England cottontail that work together to conserve this rabbit. Conservation efforts include intensive habitat restoration to create, maintain, and connect thicket habitat to increase the availability and connectivity of habitat for cottontails. Beginning in 2010, a habitat restoration project was initiated on refuge property in Kittery with the goal of creating and enhancing thicket habitat after rabbit detections began to decline in the area. After over a decade of continued efforts to restore the habitat at this site, New England cottontails are being released to support the existing small population of rabbits in the town of Kittery. It is hoped that as the population on the refuge grows it will expand into other areas within hopping distance to provide genetic augmentation and allowing the town’s population to increase.  

This release is one of several that have occurred on patches of restored habitat in Maine since 2017. Conservation efforts have started to pay off, as MDIFW has documented an increase in Maine’s New England cottontail population since 2018. In particular, following releases at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve from 2017-19, the population in eastern Wells has become one of the best populations in the state and has expanded off of the Reserve into nearby areas that had been vacant for several years. In spring 2022, the first releases occurred at Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area and the rabbits had high survival and successfully reproduced that summer. We hope to duplicate that success at the Rachel Carson NWR site in Kittery. 

Maine’s New England cottontail restoration effort would not be possible without assistance from many of our conservation partners, including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, Maine Wildlife Park, New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game, the Rhode Island Division of Wildlife, Roger Williams Park Zoo, Queen’s Zoo, local land trusts, private landowners, and others. Landowners in southern coastal Maine that are interested in managing their property to benefit New England cottontails should contact New England Cottontail Habitat Restoration Coordinator Sarah Dudek at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (sarah_dudek@fws.gov), or MDIFW Small Mammal Biologist Cory Stearns (207-287-8775). 

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service.

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