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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Saving NH’s only native rabbit means saving some pretty inelegant terrain

David Brooks

What should a wildlife conservation area look like in New Hampshire: Scrubby, nondescript and inelegant, with no big trees to speak of, right?

No? Then you’re obviously not a rabbit. ...

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What should a wildlife conservation area look like in New Hampshire: Scrubby, nondescript and inelegant, with no big trees to speak of, right?

No? Then you’re obviously not a rabbit.

“If you have 1,000 acres of woods, it only supports wildlife that thrives in the woods,” said Paul Gagnon, chairman of the Pelham Conservation Commission. “We’re trying to protect 1,000 additional acres of open space and trying to be as diverse as we can.”

I talked to Gagnon because Pelham is home to the 155-acre Gumpas Pond Conservation Area, which since 2012 has been the Nashua area’s entry in the effort to save the endangered New England cottontail.

“We cleared two areas. One was a sand pit; we levelled it and opened up about seven acres that we now have as grassy habitat. We mow it every fall – try not to do it in the summer, when we have ground birds nesting. ... We went to another area and did a clear cut, and we’re letting that grow into early succession habitat,” Gagnon said in a recent phone interview.

Clear cuts and mowing doesn’t sound terribly conservationist, but that’s exactly why the New England cottontail, New Hampshire’s only native rabbit species, is in trouble despite being cute as a button: You and I don’t like its favored habitat.

In the past half-century, since large-scale agriculture mostly disappeared, most of the fields that once filled the state have either been developed or have grown into woodlands. Neither of those is congenial to the New England cottontail, which likes “thicketed habitats,” or scrubby, brushy land ranging from old fields to very young forests.

People don’t like those areas, however. They’re hard to walk through with all those brambles and bushes, and they lack the sort of majestic growth that looks good in a cellphone camera.

Thickets are popular with rabbits and plenty of non-bipedal species because they provide places to hide and vegetal variation for food or housing.

“A lot of other species rely on these thicket habitats, including bobcats, birds, and reptiles. Many thicket-dependent species are on decline, and the New England cottontail is a representative species for this kind of habitat and its conservation,” said Adrienne Kovach, a research associate professor of natural resources at UNH who has done plenty of cottontail-related research.

Saving the New England cottontail largely means preserving or resurrecting thicketed habitat, which has shrunk some 50 percent in northern New England in recent decades.

Gagnon said Pelham learned that it could help from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ted Kendziora.

“He came to us with this cottontail story and we said great, let’s do it. It gives us yet another type of habitat,” said Gagnon

In an article on NewEnglandCottontail.org, a site devoted to rabbit restoration efforts, Kendziora explained the appeal of Gumpas Pond.

“In the past, this land was cleared for agriculture – probably livestock were pastured on these rolling hills ... The area has a lot of diversity: rock outcroppings, small wetlands, and plenty of remaining older forest providing homes for wildlife that need those habitats.

“We don’t know if New England cottontails are present at Gumpas Pond. But, frankly, this is not single-species management. The folks on the Pelham conservation and forestry committees, as well as the town’s selectmen, really get it: They understand that making young forest helps a huge range of wildlife from salamanders to warblers to bobcats.”

Part of what’s interesting about this is that a very similar species called the Eastern cottontail is doing pretty well. In fact, its range is expanding: it never used to be in New England but as the climate warms and southern plants move north, the Eastern cottontail is moving north with them.

The Eastern and New England cottontails are so similar that genetic analysis of their scat – i.e., poop – is a common way to know which is which. So how come one of them is healthy and one isn’t?

Habits, mostly.

The Eastern cottontail “is more of a generalist,” said Kovach. “Their habitat preferences are broader: They’re the ones you’ll see on a golf course, even; they’re not as reliant on a thicket, on cover.”

That may be because the Eastern cottontail is better able to detect aerial predators, apparently due to differences in eye structure between the species. As a result, they don’t freak out so much when they don’t have thickets to hide among.

Whatever the reason, though, efforts to save the New England cottontail are a good reminder that conservation isn’t always pretty.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).