PORTLAND (AP) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday it’s going to conduct a survey that will determine whether the New England cottontail rabbit deserves federal protection.

The decision follows a petition by conservation groups that want the rabbits to be protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The New England cottontail, not to be confused with more abundant eastern cottontail, has declined in numbers because of loss of habitat and predation from eastern New York to southern Maine.

Wildlife biologists estimate that there are about 250 New England cottontails left in Maine, all in southern regions.

“With a number like that it’s scary. It’s a clear indication the animals are in trouble in Maine,” said Wally Jakubas, mammal study leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in Bangor.

The New England cottontail’s historic range has dropped by 75 percent since 1960. In addition to Maine, they’re found in eastern New York and in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Federal scientists will decide within nine months whether New England cottontails warrant protection, said Michael Amaral, a senior endangered species specialist for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Concord, N.H.

It would then take another year to complete the process if scientists propose moving forward, he said.

The biggest problem for New England cottontails has been a decline in the preferred habitat – thickets, brush and brambles. Another problem is predators that include fox, coyotes, fishers and raptors.Across New England, there are still pockets of suitable habitat for cottontails, but the land is not connected.

“Even though it’s out there in patches, the rabbits can’t get from one patch to the other,” Amaral said. “They can’t travel through forest to get to the suitable habitat because it has been turned into housing developments, shopping malls, superhighways and golf courses.”

In Maine, the largest pockets of land where New England cottontails thrive consist of 5 acres or less, Jakubas said.

State regulators are already moving to protect cottontails in Maine by limiting the rabbit hunting season to snowshoe hares this fall and by working with landowners to increase the bunnies’ habitat.

Maine marks the northernmost limit of the New England cottontails’ range but their numbers could grow here thanks to the state’s efforts and an absence of the eastern cottontail. Eastern cottontails could crowd out New England cottontails but they’re not found in Maine, Jakubas said.

Elsewhere in New England, eastern cottontails have flourished since their introduction by the tens of thousands and they thrive in a variety of settings, even living alongside humans in backyards.

“If you see a rabbit out in the open, it’s most likely an eastern cottontail,” Amaral said.

AP-ES-07-01-04 1705EDT

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