DOVER — Rabbits have often faced challenges. Peter Rabbit loses his jacket and shoes after snooping around Mr. McGregor's garden; Peter Cottontail loses the title of Chief Easter Bunny to his nemesis by being irresponsible.
And on the Seacoast and in surrounding states, the New England Cottontail is struggling with threats to its habitat.
It's a bit more serious a problem than those of the storybook rabbits, which is why a handful of state and federal agencies have joined forces to help preserve and expand the New England Cottontail's habitat and population.
The University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Hampshire Fish and Game, the Wildlife Management Institute and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service are among those contributing their unique efforts toward helping this floppy-eared species.
Already listed in New Hampshire and Maine as an endangered species and in 2006 as a candidate for the federal endangered species list, the overarching goal is to keep the rabbit off the federal list.
"This thing looks and feels like an endangered species, but because we are reducing threats to the species from our conservation work, we're hoping to preclude the need to list it (federally)," said Don Kierstead, state ecologist and biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in New Hampshire.
Preservation efforts got off the ground in 2009 when New Hampshire was awarded federal funding that has fueled habitat restoration work on state lands. The money has initiated a regional partnership involving states where the New England Cottontail is still present — New York and the New England states, excluding Vermont.
Those involved conduct surveys of the rabbit primarily through trapping, roadkill and fecal pellet DNA analysis. Kierstead said the pellet analysis is the most common method because it's cheapest and fairly reliable. Pellets are collected on fresh snow and analyzed to distinguish them from the Eastern Cottontail, a populous rabbit with very similar characteristics to the New England Cottontail.
The funds have also made it possible to involve landowners in the effort. Under an agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New Hampshire, organizations are working with private landowners on plans to restore habitat for cottontails in Cheshire, Hillsborough, Merrimack, Rockingham and Strafford counties. The department's goal is to enroll 3,000 to 5,000 acres to be managed as cottontail habitat.
Landowners are given some funding for their participation, something of an incentive as Kierstead said a lot of landowners don't have 20 acres to develop a thicket-type brush habitat, and such land doesn't have much economic value.
"Funding is provided for landowners that want to develop that kind of habitat," Kierstead said. "(Agencies) are really teaming up together and contacting landowners and, when they're willing, provide funding. Really the initiative looks at if your property is within the focus area, you're a priority to receive some of these dollars."
In Strafford County, the focus is on Lee, Madbury, Durham, Dover and Rollinsford. Kierstead said there are "very few" rabbits in those areas and they have been in decline since 2004. In New England, the species has declined by 86 percent over the past 50 years.
According to Heidi Holman, wildlife diversity biologist with N.H. Fish and Game, survey efforts done by UNH that document the decline of "patches" — areas of habitat — showed they dropped significantly in the early 2000s from about 20 or more patches to about eight.
The New England Cottontail requires about 25 acres of continuous early successional habitat within a larger landscape that provides shrub wetlands and dense thickets, among other features.
Kierstead said they're unsure of an exact number of rabbits currently in the state, but UNH is starting to look at the number by making estimates from collections of fecal pellets. In this way, they can figure out how many rabbits are in a patch and how big that patch is.
"Rabbits basically aren't stable in habitat patches smaller than 12 acres," Kierstead said. "Patches of up to five or 10 acres may have rabbits, but they may be sort of transient to that patch size," Kierstead said. "They might be there one year, but not the next."
It's also difficult to monitor the number as many don't make it through the winter. This rabbit species stays brown in color during the winter months, and given the long, snowy winters of recent years, Kierstead said, they have been easy prey.
"Because these cottontails don't turn white, the presence of even a little bit of snow really changes the contrast on the background and their survivorship through the winter really declines," he said.
Predators like fox and owls will find them in the winter, a problem exacerbated by a too small or otherwise inadequate habitat cover.
"Thickets and dense vegetation areas are successional areas," Kierstead said. "Landscapes are more fragmented, and common predators such as the coyote and fox are more common now because they benefit more from landscapes inhabited by humans. Edges of beaver wetlands aren't as continuous across the landscape as they once were, shrub wetlands have degraded from runoff. With the New England Cottontail, we're trying to focus on those areas where rabbits are on or near those landscapes or were a short time ago."
Holman said the monies have helped hire a contractor to do forestry operations, control invasive plant species and plant shrubs and other growth critical to the rabbit's habitat.
It has been a fast-moving initiative.
"We did 100 acres the first year, and I believe there's going to be an additional 50 acres that's going to happen this year," Holman said. "So it was an immediate effort on the ground that we might not have been able to do otherwise."
The Wildlife Management Institute has been doing habitat restoration work pertaining to managing young forests and shrub lands, according to Steve Fuller, coordinator of the New England Cottontail Technical Committee for the institute.
The institute conducts controlled burning, which helps sustain and maintain habitats by limiting the growth of tree species that, over a period of decades, would take over the shrubs in that area.
Fuller said they also plant seeds of native shrubs in fields that have been disturbed from agricultural use.
And the initiatives don't just benefit the New England Cottontail. Fifty-nine other species are positively affected, including shrub land birds like the woodcock as well as rare butterflies, moths and amphibians and reptiles.
Although there isn't yet a quantifiable result as to the effectiveness of these efforts for the New England Cottontail, Fuller said they know it will pay off over time.
"We know the work we've done in the past for other species; we're very familiar with the kinds of vegetative response and how the wildlife benefits from it," he said. "There's unilateral agreement throughout state wildlife agencies that conserving these early shrub land species is a top benefit to the region."
In certain areas, Fuller said people get concerned about tree removal. But when done right, it's a necessary procedure.
"Most of the forests we're working with have suffered pretty heavily from past land use and management, so we look for opportunities to let the forest build itself back up," he said. "We're working very closely with the state agencies, really trying to help them deliver their conservation programs in an efficient way and also ensure some quality controls. Any kind of forest cutting is happening in places where it's appropriate; that it's the right kind of habitat prescription for a situation."
Holman said there have been habitat preservation efforts taking place all year long since winter 2009 such as tree cutting and planting. She said they'd like to expand the efforts to other parts of New Hampshire but are primarily focusing on the Seacoast where the population is more prevalent and therefore more at-risk.
"It's just been an ongoing process," she said.
Anne Schnell/Courtesy photo
A New England Cottontail in its habitat.
New Hampshire Fish and Game has been planting field borders with native shrub seed to create shrub thickets the endangered New England Cottontail needs for its habitat. The department is shown here planting at the Bellamy Wildlife Management Area in Dover.
Linda Cullivan/Courtesy photo
A New England Cottontail in its habitat.
An example of a shrub thicket the New England Cottontail needs for its habitat.
David Tibbetts/Courtesy photo
A New England Cottontail in its habitat.