March 30, 2013

Deirdre Fleming: With a little help from his friends, here may come Peter Cottontail

On Easter it seems appropriate to discuss the efforts by state and federal biologists to protect the proverbial Mr. Cottontail, known in these parts as the New England cottontail rabbit.

click image to enlarge

The cottontail does not live on cuteness alone, but its appeal in that area brings much sympathy to the little critter that needs low-brush cover to thrive.

Telegram file photo

And the facts around Benjamin Bunny amount to a good-news, bad-news proposition. The good news, fortunately, is a whole lot of love around this little critter.

Sure the rabbit's got a bull's-eye on his back in wintertime, since he does not turn white like the very similar snowshoe hare, which makes him a prime meal for owls and hawks.

And his numbers are low in Maine, with fewer than 300 at last count, a fact that landed him on the Maine endangered species list in 2006.

"The range of the rabbit is small. It's not that other species don't deserve the attention, but the only place in the world it occurs is in New York and New England. There are no other populations in other parts of the country," said biologist Kelly Boland with the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells.

But of all the endangered species that have been recovered, or at least helped by human intervention in Maine, none other seems to have drawn such public involvement and help on the ground from so many different local groups.

And that's the good news here.

"In general, it is easier to positively engage the public when the species you are targeting is cute, cuddly and charismatic," said Lindsey Fenderson, a biological science technician at the Rachel Carson refuge.

In the past six years alone, Boland said the effort in Maine has involved eight schools and universities; 18 private landowners; five municipalities; three companies; five land trusts; and more than 18 partner organizations such as the Maine Department of Transportation.

And regional state wildlife biologist Cory Stearns in Gray said the public's interest in mobilizing, volunteering and changing the landscape to welcome this smallest of critters has been a bit out of the norm.

"I can't think of any examples in conservation where the public was so interested in helping out," Stearns said.

This year Stearns has gotten help from seven land trusts between Harpswell and Portland, where volunteers plan to create the low-brush cover needed by this poster boy of Easter.

And at the three volunteer survey training sessions Stearns held this winter, dozens showed up to learn how to look for the rabbit and track its movement.

There are various reasons for the upswell of support.

First off, the cottontail has specific habitat needs, so biologists need to reach out to individual landowners.

And given its range in Maine is in southern Maine, the region of suburban sprawl, many different landowners need to work together to create the habitat the rabbit needs to thrive.

But there is also the cuteness factor and with that, its helpless situation.

"The rabbit is not a hard sell. There are school groups that are interested. But we have gotten more interest, for one, because we have been proactive, but also maybe because of the general level with which it is imperiled," Boland said.

Anyone wanting to help the cottontail can call the DIFW office (657-2345) or the Rachel Carson refuge in Wells (646-9226) to learn ways to help.

When you consider the cottontail was here before the European settlers arrived, it seems appropriate to pitch in and help restore its native habitat.

Maybe by next Easter someone will have created a bumper sticker for the cause.

And further spread the word to Bring Back the Bunny.


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

Twitter: Flemingpph


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