Cottontail’s Life No Hop in the Park

By Diane Valden for The Columbia Paper

COPAKE, NY — The life of a rabbit is no hop in the park.

That's especially true if the rabbit is a New England cottontail, a "species of special concern," numbering only 10,000 to 15,000 in existence across its range.

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New England cottontail in summer habitat. Conservationists are working to save this rabbit, native to New England and eastern New York, by creating the young forest habitat it needs./K. Boland

The New England cottontail's predicament is twofold. First, its preferred habitat, called young forest, is getting older, and therefore is no longer available. And second, what suitable habitat exists is being taken over by an invasive rabbit, a.k.a. the eastern cottontail.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and other agencies are working to help the New England cottontail make a comeback.

One place the DEC aims to make that happen, since some New England cottontails already live nearby, is on a 689-acre tract of land the DEC purchased earlier this year. The land spans the towns of Taghkanic, Ancram and Gallatin in upstate eastern New York and is called the Doodletown Wildlife Management Area. The DEC hosted a public meeting Monday night at the Copake Park Building to have several experts discuss aspects of the DEC's planned wildlife management practices at the Doodletown WMA.

About 60 people attended.

The DEC intends to help not only the New England cottontail, but also the ruffed grouse, American woodcock, warblers, wood turtles and other species of birds, mammals and reptiles that must live amidst diverse plants including grasses, wildflowers, vines, shrubs, seedlings and saplings.

Young forest provides that diverse plant growth.

The DEC will create areas of young forest where there is currently a mature forest. Cutting down some of the old trees on 10 to 15 percent of the Doodletown WMA over 10 years will allow the forest to regenerate naturally.

SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry research scientist Amanda Cheeseman, who recently earned her doctorate studying New England cottontails, noted the dire straits the rabbits are in, with an 86 percent loss of their historic range over the last 50 years. This rabbit is now found only in five isolated regions of New York and New England.

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Read more about Doodletown WMA.