Nomans Land May Become Bunny Island

By Tanner Stening, Cape Cod Times

Federal agency plans to establish population of at-risk cottontails on island refuge.

The New England cottontail population will be getting another boost on the Cape and Islands.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday it plans to establish a population of the vulnerable species of rabbit on Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge in Chilmark. The federal agency says the coastal shrubland on the 600-acre island, which is believed to have harbored the rabbits in the past, is capable of supporting more than 600 cottontails.

Nomans Island

Nomans Land Island lies southwest of Martha's Vineyard. Conservationists plan to establish a colony of New England cottontails on the uninhabited island, which is a wildlife refuge./E. McGourty

Once an aerial bombardment and gunnery range run by the U.S Navy, Nomans Land was acquired by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the late 1990s. Biologists with the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge, in consultation with cottontail researchers, deemed the island south of Martha’s Vineyard fit for the experiment, which includes releasing rabbits caught in the wild on the mainland or those reared through captive breeding programs.

Similar efforts at reintroducing populations of the New England cottontails have been made on Patience Island in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay in recent years.

A 67-page environmental assessment released by the Service Thursday outlined the plan for Nomans Land. The report is open for public comment until March 2.

After more than a decade of conservation work, the cottontail’s population has rebounded, and it is no longer listed as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. But the rabbit — which prefers to live in “dense thickets associated with young forests, shrublands and coastal barrens,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service — is considered at risk, and the Service has called for continued conservation efforts.

Habitat loss is still an ongoing problem, affecting the rabbit’s ability to find food and shelter and to breed. Less than 3 percent of New England cottontail habitat remains in Massachusetts, officials with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife say.

View the Plan

The draft environmental assessment of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to establish a population of New England cottontail rabbits on Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge can be viewed here.

Public comments can be sent by March 2 to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Attn: New England Cottontail EA, 73 Weir Hill Road, Sudbury, MA 01776.

habitat on Nomans Island

Nomans Land Island has thick shrub vegetation that could support more than 600 New England cottontails./C. Corsair

“About 65 percent of Massachusetts is forested, but there’s different kinds of forest,” said Marion Larson, the chief of information for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “New England cottontails require young forest habitat, and that’s really thick, unkempt, bushy stuff. They thrive in the places that you and I would be having a hard time pushing through.”

The New England cottontail differs from the more common eastern cottontail, which competes with its at-risk counterpart for habitat. The eastern cottontail, which is what people see in the wild most of the time, was introduced in Massachusetts, Larson said.

“(The New England cottontail) is truly the only native cottontail in Massachusetts,” she said.

The New England cottontail’s population has declined in the past half-century as young forests were cleared for development and as existing forests matured into older and taller woods, which reduced ground-level cover and food for the species.

On Cape Cod, efforts to save the cottontail’s habitat have come through regimes of prescribed burns at the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge, where the bunnies are known to live. By thinning out dense shrubs and tall trees, the burnings make an area more desirable for the rabbit and other species that enjoy the same habitat, such as the ruffed grouse, wood turtle and golden-winged warbler.