Rabbits on decline in state


PORTLAND (AP) – The numbers of New England cottontail rabbits are on the decline in Maine, with only 300 of the animals remaining in a small range in the southern end of the state.

Efforts are under way to increase their numbers by preserving habitat where they live. The numbers have fallen as development pressures have claimed shrub-filled farm fields where the rabbits live.

The state and conservationists are working on plan to preserve spots where the rabbits still live and restore populations to their previous range. A draft plan, which has yet to be approved by the state, calls for Maine to have 18 core habitats of at least 25 acres each for the rabbits by 2016.

On the local level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to survey the number of rabbits on town land in an area of Cape Elizabeth to determine which fields there should be maintained as cottontail habitat.

In Scarborough, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge last fall planted native shrubs and removed invasive plants at a spot in the refuge near the Spurwink River to enhance the rabbits’ habit.

And in Kittery, a botanist has applied for a $100,000 federal grant to implement a similar habitat improvement program on an old farm where a rabbit population has managed to hang on despite development pressures.

The cottontails’ range used to extend to western and central Maine and as far up the coast as Belfast. They were so plentiful, they were hunted for sport or for stew.

“I run into people fairly constantly who say, 25 years ago, I always saw rabbits, I saw them every day as a kid, we ate them all the time,”‘ said Kate O’Brien, a wildlife biologist with the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge.

The state banned cottontail hunting two years ago, and state biologists are trying to get the cottontail put on the state’s list of endangered and threatened species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also considering whether the animal should be on the federal endangered species list. A decision could come by early summer.

New England cottontails are the only true rabbits in Maine, according to a 2004 study done by John Litvaitis, a University of New Hampshire professor, and Wally Jakubas, the mammal group leader at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

Maine also has snowshoe hares, a cousin of the rabbit. Another type of rabbit, the Eastern cottontail, exists alongside the New England cottontail in other New England states, but not in Maine.

Biologists say the 300 or so remaining cottontails in Maine live in 53 disparate sites from Freeport south.

David Tibbetts, a field botanist from Wells working to preserve the cottontail habitat at the farm in Kittery, said spotting a cottontail can be thrilling.

“To see them is kind of a privilege and also a bit of a hope too, because they are still around and if we do give them habitat we can bring the numbers back,” he said.