Federal officials announced Friday they won’t be listing the New England Cottontail Rabbit as an endangered species. The news underscores how states are increasingly doing everything possible to turn declining species around before they incur the restrictions the Endangered Species Act can bring.
The New England Cottontail has been a candidate for listing as a federally endangered species since 2006. The big culprit: the slow erosion of the rabbits’ habitat as the region’s forests have been allowed to gradually mature.
So when Fish and Wildlife officials decided the cottontail was on the road to recovery it was an announcement the federal government was happy to celebrate.
Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, was in Dover Friday to make the announcement.
"Let’s hear it for the New England Cottontail. A species that does not warrant protection under the endangered species act because of the work of all of you. It’s an incredible model for conservation that we’ll be talking about around the country."
The rabbits rely on young forests, with short trees surrounded by waste high shrubs and bushes.
They have really poor eyesight, and so – like Peter Rabbit –burying themselves in a briar patch is their survival mechanism. To bring them back, states have encouraged landowners to cut trees and plant shrubs.
In total they have created 18,000 acres of new habitat.
They're also breeding rabbits at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island and releasing them into the wild. Lou Perrotti runs that program, and says – surprise, surprise – the rabbits in captivity have no problem breeding.
"If it’s large enough to have a radio collar put on it then they go directly to the release sites, but if they’re still a little small then they go to the hardening pens, to grow up a little more and learn how to be a wild rabbit before they’re collared and set out to make more rabbits, hopefully."
The fact that the species won’t get listed was welcome news for local officials.
Glenn Normandeau, the Director of New Hampshire Fish and Game explains once a species is listed as federally endangered, anything that impacts the animal’s habitat gets put under a microscope.
"A whole pile of problems come with getting permits to do work, which can really complicate any kind of economic activity on the landscape."
In particular, big development projects in Londonderry, right in the heart of New Hampshire’s last cottontail population, might have run into trouble.
So, for environmental groups this creates something of a strategic question.
On the one hand, you can do what the Environmental Defense Fund does, argue to states that a listing can put them in a straight-jacket and that sometimes acting earlier to protect a species with more latitude to experiment can yield better results.
"The motivation to conserve is very strong in those years prior to a listing decision," says Eric Holst, an associate Vice President with the EDF.
"It’s a great opportunity to stimulate public investment, private investment… it’s a great opportunity to stimulate the conservation ethic of private landowners, forest landowners."
The most notable example of this type of private-public partnership is just gearing up out West, where the conflict between oil and gas development and Sage Grouse habitat has seized the nation’s attention.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are groups which really believe a listing is still appropriate.
"It’s sort of ironic here that what’s driven a lot of the conservation action for the New England Cottontail is frankly I think the fear of the species being listed."
Molly Matteson, Senior Scientist with the Center for Biologic Diversity says a listing is not a bad thing but would provide a clear set of directives for protecting the species all through its recovery.
"I have concerns that that same level of accountability is not there without that protection in place."
For this species, New England’s conservation groups got proactive, and have kept the listing at bay.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen and Secretary Jewell got to do the honors of ceremoniously releasing two captive bred New England Cottontails in Dover Friday. So that’s two more out in the world, doing their part to stave of federal oversight, at least for a little while longer.