Hot Topic! Where do YOU see signs of New England Cottontail?

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Take a look at the map below. This map indicates the historic (below the red dotted line) and current (in blue) range of the New England Cottontail (NEC). If you or your students live within the current or historic range outlined in this map then Kelly, Kate, and Katelyn from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge need your help looking for signs of the NEC. Help them out by participating in Mission: New England Cottontail.

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Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)

The NEC is Maine’s only native rabbit. This species was abundant in the mid-1900’s, but its range has shrunk a lot over the past 100 years. This is mainly due to changes humans have made to the landscape. After European settlement of America, there was a lot of open farmland but, after the late 1800’s, that farmland was largely abandoned and this caused an expansion of young forest (aka shrubland) habitat. This increase in young forest habitat created ideal conditions for the NEC to have a healthy population but, around the 1950’s, this habitat began to decline. The NEC, and over 100 species in the northeastern United States, rely on young forest habitat to survive.

To ensure a healthy Maine environment, biodiversity is key. When an area has high biodiversity, or many different species living in one area, this provides many natural services, resources, and cultural benefits. With a balance of young and mature forest, not only can we support more NECs but many other species as well. NECs are only present in about 15% of their former range in Maine because of a lack of habitat. Since 2007, the NEC has been on Maine’s endangered species list (Boland, BDN Interview, April 1 2015).

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NEC. Photo Credit: Tom Barnes, USFWS

In response to the observed decline of NEC, habitat restoration projects began in the mid 2000s on the Wells Reserve, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge property, Sprague Corporation land, and York Land Trust’s Highland Farm Preserve. Although the NEC is still listed as endangered in Maine and New Hampshire, there is good news! In September of this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that the NEC did not need to be added to the Federal threatened or endangered list.

There are limited federal and state lands, and in order to help the NEC bounce back to a healthy population, restoration projects with private landowners are key. Many private landowners have concerns about what it may mean to have a state endangered species on their property, here are some FAQ’s that you may have about NECs and what their presence on your land means. In 2013, Massabesic Middle School helped out with a NEC survey along with the York County Soil and Water Conservation District, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Read more about their work here.

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Restoring NEC homes. Photo Credit: USFWS

So, are you wondering how YOU can help? We have the mission for you. Vital Signs has teamed up with the folks at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge and they want YOU to look for signs of NEC. If more people are out looking, scientists and managers can confirm or question claims of areas with positive signs for NEC. This will help them know where to look further. Take a look at the Mission: New England Cottontail for more information.

To prepare for the fieldwork, you may want your students to brush up on their fieldwork skills with these handy fieldwork skill stations. When the snow falls, it is prime time to search for the signs of NEC but, even though you may think that spotting a brown rabbit in winter will be easy, chances are you will not see the actual rabbit and signs can be scarce...so, how important is “NOT FOUND”?

Hopefully this winter you and your students will bundle up, get outside, look for the signs of the NEC, and post your FOUND and NOT FOUND data to the Vital Signs website. We look forward to seeing your data!