At the 2,000-acre Ram Island Farm in Cape Elizabeth, workers have been busy creating briar patches.
For the past year and a half, property manager John Greene has overseen the removal of the tree canopy and invasive species such as honeysuckle, bittersweet and barberry, and the planting of native chokeberry, Virginia rose and hazelnut.
It has all been an effort to create habitat for the New England cottontail.
Greene set out motion-triggered video cameras last winter to catch the elusive rabbits making their way through the man-made thicket tunnels.
“We are basically learning as we go,” he said.
Ram Island Farm, owned by the Sprague Corp., is one of more than a dozen landowners in southern Maine that are taking part in an intensive effort to prevent the New England cottontail from disappearing from the landscape.
While no one knows exactly how many of the animals there are, Maine’s population is estimated at fewer than 300 rabbits. Since 2000, there has been a 60 percent reduction in their range in Maine, specialists estimate.
Walter Jakubas, mammal group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the winters of 2007-08 and 2008-09 were hard for cottontails, and recent surveys found they are no longer living in places where they were found just a few years ago.
Population estimates are even harder to make for the other New England states, where only genetic tests can differentiate the New England cottontail from the much more common eastern cottontail species.
This past winter in New Hampshire, the population was just two small clusters of 20 rabbits or fewer, said John A. Litvaitis, a leading New England cottontail researcher in the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.
While it is too soon to tell whether habitat restoration efforts are working, the habitat is slowing spreading.
“Things are happening on the ground,” said Kerry Boland, a restoration coordinator based at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells.
New England cottontails once ranged over much of southern Maine. Their population here peaked in the 1960s, when the rabbits were still a common sight. But as fields and farmlands were lost to development and reforestation, and the shrublands they prefer disappeared, so did the rabbits.
New England cottontails were placed on Maine’s list of threatened and endangered species in 2007.
Today, 10 public and private organizations, including the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Environmental Defense Fund and the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service, are working in Cumberland, York, Androscoggin and Sagadahoc counties.
They are looking for landowners such as the Sprague Corp. that are willing to manage land to bring back the rabbit population in 18 areas across their former range.
It takes three to six years to create the dense thickets and tunnels where New England cottontails thrive. It isn’t easy, said Kate O’Brien, wildlife biologist with the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.
“People like to manage for forests and for fields, but there is not a lot of interest in managing for the intermediate areas, the shrublands,” said O’Brien.
Still, some landowners and land trusts have jumped at the chance, including the York Land Trust, the Great Works Regional Land Trust in Ogunquit and the Scarborough Land Trust.
Seth Sprague, president of the Sprague Crop., said the programs available to help landowners restore habitat made a project at Ram Island Farm attractive. Various government agencies have provided the expertise to convert three 25-acre parcels to New England cottontail habitat.
“We like the little critters,” Sprague said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: