New England cottontail making a comeback

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A female New England cottontail rabbit at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence, R.I. (AP)

DOVER, N.H. (AP) — From their enclosures at zoos in New York and Rhode Island, the New England cottontail offers a cute distraction for visitors.

But for scientists working to restore the rabbit in the wild, these captive bunnies represent a whole lot more. They are part of a plan to eventually release up to 500 of the rabbits a year into the overgrown farms and brushy fields of New Hampshire, Rhode Island and possibly Maine.

The goal is to increase New Hampshire's population to 1,000 and Rhode Island's to 500 by 2030.

New Hampshire has released 36 rabbits since 2013 and restored upward of 1,000 acres of forests and thickets favored by the rabbits. Around 70 have been released in Rhode Island while a Maine release is pending state approval.

"In New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island, populations are so low and, in Rhode Island's case, they can't even find the New England cottontail on an annual basis," said Heidi Holman, a wildlife diversity biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department who heads the group overseeing reintroduction. "We knew it would be essential to have a source of rabbit to reintroduce or augment existing populations as the habitat is created," she said.

Wildlife agencies are increasingly turning to reintroductions programs to stabilize or bolster dwindling populations of endangered species. Among the success stories have been the California condor, the red wolf in the Southwest and the Karner blue butterfly in Ohio, New York and New Hampshire, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The rabbit reintroduction is a first for the region and has largely been welcomed, though some people have complained about wasting money to help rabbits since they seem commonplace. That is a misconception that comes from confusing the New England cottontail with the more common eastern cottontail, which is not native to the region. Both have brown fur but most eastern cottontail have a white dot on their foreheads.

When Lou Perrotti, the director of conservation programs for the Rogers William Zoo, responsible for breeding the rabbits, launched the cottontail program at the Providence zoo in 2011, he didn't know what to expect. Nobody had tried this before.

"Rabbits are a fight or flight critter. They stress out really easily. I was thinking, my God, they might not even do well," he said. "They aren't going to breed. They aren't going to give birth. We found just the opposite."

The zoo has released 140 rabbits into the wild, including to Patience Island in Narragansett Bay and other sites in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The population on the island has now doubled to more than 120, allowing rabbits to be relocated to a state nature reserve.

The reintroduction scheme, which includes a captive breeding program started last year at the Queens Zoo in New York, hasn't been without its challenges. In New Hampshire, a dozen rabbits introduced on a privately owned site are no longer there. The small size of the site probably made the rabbits more vulnerable to predators like coyotes and foxes, Holman said.

But at the much larger Bellamy Wildlife Management Area, the rabbits are doing just fine. Two dozen were released and they have now spread to another location on the 420-acre site that was logged to allow for the growth of shrubs and young trees.

"Everything living here is offspring so they have naturally colonized a new patch of habitat," Holman said as looked out on the site that was once home to towering white pine trees. "It is exciting to know there were rabbits, enough that they would disperse and look for new habitat on the landscape."