In Londonderry, bush-whacking through some seriously thick brush, Fish and Game field biologists Brett Ferry and Tyler Mahard are hunting for rabbits, but instead of firearms they’re using traps and radio telemetry.
They will take blood samples and put radio collars on rabbits they capture to ensure that we will continue to have a good idea of the state of the threatened rabbit population, and a few will be sent to a captive breeding program at a zoo in Rhode Island.
Around a decade ago, Stonyfield Yogurt was looking to expand a parking lot in this area, which is also home to one of the last two remaining New Hampshire populations of New England Cottontail. The company worked out a deal with Fish and Game: in exchange for the parking lot in one location, they would do habitat restoration at this site.
“Restoring habitat for rabbits means getting young forests growing again, cutting down trees and favoring shrubs, they like really dense thickets,” says John Kanter, who lead up Fish and Game’s endangered species program, “The response, I have to say, was phenomenal.”
Kanter says it’s hard to say what the population of rabbits in this patch of land was, but he feels confident in guessing that it has at least doubled.
One of the biggest wildlife success stories of the past decade in New England has been a collaboration that has kept our native cottontail rabbit off of the federal endangered species list. The blueprint for that success came from something called a “Wildlife Action Plan,” which gathered together all of the best science on the state’s threatened species into one document.
The efforts underway today – collaborating with private landowners to cultivate good rabbit habitat, and breeding and releasing New England cottontails back into the wild – are in part a result of that plan, and now Fish and Game is in the midst of a required ten-year update to that plan.
What they’ve found give hints about other species that may need to follow that same blueprint in the decade to come. The new version documents 167 species of wildlife that are most at risk, and where the best habitat for them can be found.
Not Just a Report on a Shelf
In a world where government reports are often released with great fanfare only to sit on a shelf and never again see the light of day the Wildlife Action Plan is another story.
“I don’t know if I go a day without using the Wildlife Action Plan,” says Duane Hyde with the Southeast Land Trust.
Conservation groups use this plan to decide what’s the best land to put into conservation, given that with limited dollars you can’t do it all.
“Our organization, like many of the smaller regional land-trusts, we don’t have a wildlife biologist on staff, we’re not big enough to afford something like that,” says Hyde, “so we turn to the wildlife action plan to give us that background information that we just don’t have in house.”
The centerpiece of the plan for groups like Hyde’s are town-by-town maps, which highlight the most critical habitat in bright pink. When a land trust receives an a proposal for a new easement, it can simply look up Fish and Game’s maps to see how that plot of land stacks up. Organizations that give grant money for conservation often use the Wildlife Action Plan’s maps as part of their selection criteria.
More Species on the Horizon
Back in the rabbit thicket in Londonderry, Brett Ferry is transferring a rabbit from a trap to a bag, where the darkness keeps the animal calm.
“We just got to be careful they don’t jump out,” he says as he deftly executes the maneuver.
He and Mahard collar the rabbit, take a blood sample and check the animals sex before carefully releasing it back into the woods. The rabbit crouches, looking terrified for a few moments before bounding into the thick shrubbery, giving off an almost inaudible squeak as it goes.
When the last Wildlife Action Plan was being crafted, the state was still just coming to grips with what it would have to do to restore cottontail rabbit populations, but this fall when it was announced that the New England Cottontail would not be listed as a federally endangered species, it was a big deal. The secretary of the interior, Sally Jewel flew to New Hampshire, along with higher ups from several other federal wildlife agencies.
Now that the rabbit program is up and running, Fish and Game’s John Kanter is looking ahead to the next species that will need this kind of intervention. He says pollinators like wild bumble bees may need some attention, but the species that is next most at risk? Turtles.
“I’d put number two in that category behind cottontails is the Blanding’s turtle,” says Kanter, who notes the science needed to direct conservation work on this creature is already underway, “So that’s into phase II now, the priority conservation areas like the ones that were identified five years ago for the New England cottontail have now been identified for that species and the implementation phase is just starting.”
This may mean you will start to see turtle crossing signs sprouting up in certain places and extra-wide culverts to help females get across roads, as well as restoring sandy spots for eggs to be laid.
And if all goes well, the Blanding’s turtle, like the cottontail, won’t wind up listed as heading for extinction.