Pygmy rabbit (Photo by Washington State University)
Both the pygmy rabbit and the New England cottontail have been in the news recently for diminishing populations in the wild.
Earlier this week, Western Watersheds Project of Hailey, Idaho filed a court challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s denial of endangered species protection to pygmy rabbits. Pygmy rabbits, which are tiny enough to fit into the palm of your hand, have experienced a decrease in population as a result of habitat fragmentation and loss, which was caused by livestock grazing.
A survey conducted by scientists at the University of Rhode Island and the state Department of Environmental Management revealed virtually no sign of the native New England cottontail rabbit in Rhode Island. Last winter, rabbit droppings were collected and DNA tested. The results showed that all the droppings belonged to non-native Eastern cottontails. Eastern cottontails were introduced to the area in the 1930s and have flourished while New England cottontail populations declined. Although attempts have been made to introduce new habitat (young forests, scrub brush), the New England cottontail is close to being placed on the Endangered Species List.
In a very eye-opening slide show, Scientific American revealed that 30% of the world’s rabbit species are at risk. The slide show profiled 6 species of wild rabbit and 1 species of hare in danger of extinction in their native habitats. Included are the European rabbit, Amami rabbit, hispid hare, lower keys marsh rabbit, New England cottontail, volcano rabbit, and pygmy rabbit.
The New England cottontail is Maine’s only native rabbit, and it’s on the state’s endangered species list. I mentioned in a previous post how forest growth and habitat fragmentation had curbed the New England cottontail’s population. A further threat has been competition with a larger, sharper-eyed non-native rabbit, the Eastern cottontail. These rabbits were introduced to the area in the 1920s by state wildlife management agencies and private hunting clubs to increase game populations.
As a result, the York Land Trust has decided their wildlife mascot for 2009 will be the New England cottontail, and they are working to preserve an area in York that includes scrubby brush, a prime habitat for the cottontails. They may also supplement the area, which used to be a golf course, by building burrows and adding more brush piles.