AUGUSTA (AP) – State wildlife biologists who fear the New England cottontail is hopping down a path to extinction in Maine want to change the hunting season to help preserve the rabbits.

The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, citing a report that indicates there are only about 250 New England cottontails left in Maine, wants to limit the rabbit hunting season to snowshoe hares.

The department also plans to work with conservation agencies and landowners to help increase cottontail rabbit habitat in southern Maine, where all of the remaining cottontails are found.

If nothing is done, the animal could be wiped out in Maine, said Wally Jakubas, the department’s mammal study leader.

Jakubas said one of the problems with Maine’s cottontail habitat is that there are small, two-acre patches of habitat that are miles away from other suitable habitats. And in southern Maine the existing habitat is expected to decrease dramatically in the next 50 years as urban sprawl takes over, making rabbits more of a target for predators, said Sandra Ritchie, state wildlife resource planner.

Animals that prey on cottontail rabbits include fishers, red foxes, coyotes, owls, bobcats, and domestic cats.

“The patches (of habitat) are so far apart, the animal can’t readily make it to the next patch,” Jakubas said. “They can’t travel long distances without encountering a large predator.”

The hunting season for rabbits in Maine was first established in 1905. But in the past 40 years the range and abundance of the New England cottontail rabbit in Maine has declined dramatically, Ritchie said.

Before 1960, cottontails were found in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and northern New England, according to the department.

But as farmland grew in and young forest stands grew into closed-canopy forests, the population quickly declined, Ritchie said.

Jakubas said several groups outside of Maine, including the Defenders of Wildlife, have asked the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to list the cottontail as endangered. He said the request was made four years ago, but no decision has been made.

Current hunting regulations allow the hunting of snowshoe hare and New England cottontail rabbits in Maine from Oct. 1 to March 31 each year, with a daily bag limit of one cottontail and a possession limit of two.

The state’s proposal to close the cottontail season will be open for public comment from June 16 to July 16.

AP-ES-05-28-04 0853EDT

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