Despite tough economic times, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is continuing its save-the-bunny campaign.

There is a full-on push to bring the cottontail rabbit back in northern New England.

The rabbit is on the endangered species list in both Maine and New Hampshire, but not the federal list. And it won’t be if the biologists at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells can help it.

“We’re trying to set a new precedent to work with species on that list, to make habitat for this species before it gets to the point it is too late. The rabbit is one of the first species in this part of the country that is getting this attention, trying to help the species before it gets put on the endangered species list. But it’s going to depend on private landowners becoming involved,” said Kelly Boland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife project coordinator at the refuge.

Cottontail rabbits have been vanishing from shrub patches they used to inhabit in Maine, Boland said.

It’s not so simple as protecting land that is not developed. In this instance, the Pine Tree State has to become something else.

“There is not a whole lot of shrub habitat being created,” Boland said.

Cottontail rabbits need low shrubs that are precursors to the forestland that dominates the Maine landscape.

One goal of the wildlife service is to have more than 1,500 acres of rabbit habitat in Maine and New Hampshire in the next 10 years.

Boland said there now are more than 300 acres protected and created for cottontail rabbits.

But with around 300 cottontails in Maine, it’s not enough, Boland said. And without a concerted effort, rabbit habitat doesn’t just happen.

Since Boland took on the cottontail project a year ago through a three-year grant from the Environmental Defense Fund, she has worked with schools in York and South Berwick and gone to Maine Audubon to do a presentation to spread awareness of the needs of cottontail rabbits.

She started with only habitat created at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, and now has a few land trusts involved in the project.

In Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, more than 200 acres of cottontail habitat have been created.

“This can’t just happen only on state and federal land. It has to happen on private land,” Boland said.

In old farmland in York County, Boland asks landowners to cut old fields and forest patches to create bunny dens.

Part of what she does is help private landowners create a plan that includes funding. A minimum of six to 10 acres is required to make the shrub land helpful, she said.

To help recruit landowners to the effort, there are federal grants available to pay for the cost of changing large tracts of forestland.

“If it is a really good project, there is a good chance of funding it. Cottontail is a high priority for the state and the federal agency,” Boland said.

Key towns where she wants to extend this habitat are South Berwick, Eliot, York, Wells, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, which has one of the largest populations of cottontail rabbits because of the two state parks there.

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Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

[email protected]