The dominant rabbit in this region (and a very common sight) is the Eastern Cottontail. It’s a medium-size rabbit, mottled grey and brown and white. It looks like the archetypical “rabbit,” a storybook rabbit. But it doesn’t belong there.
What does belong is another breed, which is medium-size, mottled grey and brown and white, that looks, well, also like a storybook rabbit. In fact, it looks basically exactly like the Eastern Cottontail, but its population has been drastically reduced over the past few decades, unlike the Eastern Cottontail’s, which has increased.
The New England Cottontail is the native rabbit in these parts, and its population dipped so low that in 2006 it was placed on the Endangered Species list. Even though it looks very similar to the Eastern Cottontail (in fact, the only real way to be sure which species is which is by DNA testing), the New England Cottontail relies on thicket coverage, small bushes, and brush for its habitat. The Eastern Cottontail can handle just about any habitat – thickets, sure, but also grassland and forest and even suburban lawns. With the explosion of development in the Northeast Corridor, with every possible open space plowed to make room for houses and malls, the New England Cottontail lost its thickets, and the Eastern Cottontail moved on in.
What’s important about the story of the New England Cottontail is that conservation efforts actually can, sometimes, succeed. Begun in 2008, state, federal, and private conservation efforts managed to preserve open spaces, eliminate invasive species, and recreate the rabbit’s preferred thicket habitats in its historic range. Last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that, having reached a population of 10,500 in protected areas, the rabbit is being removed from the Endangered Species list – though they are quick to note that the effort to preserve and create new open spaces will continue. “Our work is not finished,” said the Service’s Northeast Regional Director Wendi Weber in a press release. “We and our partners are committed to seeing this initiative through. We’re still seeking help from landowners willing to make and maintain young forest and shrubland habitat. In most places, this type of habitat will depend on our careful and ongoing management.”