Biologists believe that habitat loss, forest insect outbreaks, wildfire, and invasive species are all to blame for declining populations of the New England cottontail. The rabbit’s range has shrunk by more than 75 percent, with its numbers reduced to only five small populations in the historic range and none remaining in Vermont. As numbers of New England cottontail continue to decline, state and federal agencies are working together to help improve its chances of survival.
Coastal resource managers in southern Maine worked together to assess management and conservation options for protecting the endangered New England cottontail. Staff members from the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assisted state managers and members of nonprofit organizations who are attempting to protect habitat for this species.
The researchers used the NOAA Office for Coastal Management’s Habitat Priority Planner tool, NOAA’s Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP) land cover data, and local land cover data to determine suitable habitat for this species. The researchers focused on early successional forest types such as scrub shrub and forested scrub shrub. The Habitat Priority Planner was also used to analyze these key habitat types to determine a relationship to the other habitat markers of this species. Additional data included rabbit occurrence counts, soil types that correlate with specific habitats, and managed areas such as railroads and utility lines that are favored by the rabbits.
The results were used to determine areas that should be monitored during winter months and potentially conserved for the long-term management of this critical species. Monitoring efforts are being compared with the outputs of the Habitat Priority Planner to determine the effectiveness of using GIS tools for endangered species management.