The use of controlled fires to reestablish shrubland habitat for the New England cottontail

One of the most recognizable backyard animals is the rabbit. It quietly hops among the grass in your lawn, foraging for food. It has brown ears, big black eyes, long hind feet, and a small tuft of a white tail. You think, oh it’s a bunny. Or perhaps you can correctly identify it as a cottontail. What you are likely seeing is an eastern cottontail, a prolific, invasive rabbit that was introduced to New England and spread rapidly throughout the region. In addition to being a general pest that destroys our gardens, the eastern cottontail impacts native species and can serve as a vector for harmful diseases to both our family and pets (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, n.d.). But did you know that New England also has an environmentally beneficial native cottontail?

As the name implies, the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is a native species historically found in New England and New York (United States Fish and Wildlife Service [USFW], 2012). As an herbivorous species, the New England cottontail feeds primarily on grass, forbs, twigs, and other plant material. In the spring and summer, they will forage on native grasses and herbs like clover and buttercup, but the onset of colder weather changes its diet to woodier materials like highbush blueberries and red maple twigs (Environmental Defense Fund, 2008, pp. 5-6). Similar to other rabbit species, this cottontail has a strong sense of smell and hearing.  These traits are vital to their survival because they are commonly preyed upon by foxes and raptors(Berenson, 2012). Up until 1960, the New England cottontail was distributed across 90,000 km² of New England’s landscape (Litvaitis et al., 2006, p. 1191); however, in recent decades, something of a “disappearing rabbit trick” has occurred to this species (USFW, 2012). Recent reports by U.S. Fish and Wildlife state that the New England cottontail has been extirpated from Vermont, and only five major but disjunct populations still exist (2012; Fergus, 2013, p. 21). The range of this species has contracted to 14% of its original native habitat, or approximately 12,180 km² (Litvaitis et al., 2006, p. 1193). Much of this dramatic decline can be attributed to the disappearance of early successional forests in New England.

The New England cottontail has specialized in occupying early successional forests that are characterized by woody undergrowth and dense thickets with tangled vegetation (USFW, 2012). This type of forest is between 10-25 years of age and provides a narrow niche where many shrubland species can thrive (Litvaitis & Villafuerte, 1996,p. 687; USFW, 2012). New England cottontails require dense shrubland habitat because their eyes are not adapted to survey open surroundings (Wildlife Management Institute, n.d., para. 4). These cottontails rarely stray more than 16 feet from the safety of woody thickets and spend the majority of their time in thick undergrowth to make them less susceptible to predation (Environmental Defense Fund, 2008, p. 5).Once shrubland forest progresses to a stand, defined as “a group of forest trees of sufficiently uniform species composition, age, and condition” (Maryland Department of Natural Resources, n.d.), it is no longer suitable for this rabbit and can impact the survivability of the species (USFW, 2012). The maturation of early successional forest to stand has been problematic for the New England cottontail, but what triggered this shift from diverse landscapes to forest succession monocultures? The increase in mature forests may surprisingly be correlated to a certain environmentalist bear that spearheaded the public service movement to condemn natural forest regeneration by way of forest fires.

In 1944, Smokey the Bear began his successful campaign across America to prevent forest fires and protect our beautiful forests. Misconceptions about forest fires arose because the public extrapolated that the dangerous nature of wildfires meant that all fires were bad and “needed to be stamped out” (National Wildlife Federation, n.d.a). As scientists began to study cross-sections of trees, they discovered unique scars that were indicative of trees that had experienced and survived multiple forest fire events (United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service [USDAFS], 2004, para. 4). Over time, scientists have come to understand that forest fires are naturally occurring processes that can positively shape our landscape by creating healthy, diverse habitats. However, by the time the importance of fires was realized, Americans had grown attached to the idea that suppressing all wildfires was conducive to their safety (USDAFS & National Association of State Foresters, n.d.a, The Great Barbecue section, para. 1). The public did not understand the gravity of excessively suppressing naturally occurring forest fires.

Despite public perception, forest fires can be ecologically beneficial to the environment and tolerable for the animals that inhabit areas that experience fires.  Fires aid in the decomposition of accumulated dead matter, which allows nutrients to be released into the soil and taken up by plants (Wuerthner, 1994, para. 4).  The smoke generated from fires is critical for killing deadly tree pathogens, overabundant insects, and reducing the instances of disease in forest organisms (Wuerthner, 1994, para. 5; USDAFS, n.d.a, Historic Role of Fire section, para. 3). In contrast to what Smokey the Bear suggested, wildlife that live in fire-adapted environments have evolved to cope with forest fires. Many small animals will leave an area where they detect fires; some burrow into the ground to hide away from the flames and smoke (Zielinski, 2014, para. 6). Although some animals will inevitable die from the fires, there has never been a documented case in the United States of a forest fire decimating a population of any species (Zielinski, 2014, para. 12). Nevertheless, despite the emergence of forest fire education, the consequences of previous ignorance on the topic have already taken effect in the New England environment.

In recent decades, the impacts of the Smokey the Bear campaign have begun to manifest as we have created a homogenous landscape of mature stands across New England (DeGraff, Yamasaki, Leak, & Lester, 2005, p. 13). A diverse landscape of young and old forest once kept in balance by forest fires is deficient of primary successional forests, critical habitat for New England cottontails and around 60 other shrubland-dependent species like the box turtle (Fergus, 2013, p. 22). Since this shrubland environment is “almost always temporary” (University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, n.d.) until trees develop and overshadow the undergrowth, the periodic regeneration of young forests is vital to the survival of shrubland species. Having large, continuous plots of shrubland is also important for the establishment and sustainability of a healthy population of New England cottontails.

New England cottontail populations have suffered from habitat reduction and fragmentation due to human development and expansion into their homeland (National Wildlife Federation, n.d.b).  Small reductions in habitat size and minor fragmentation can lead to an accumulation of changes to the landscape that have a negative impact on the sustainability of this native rabbit. Previous telemetry studies on the New England cottontail showed that rabbits that occupied patches of land less than 2.5 hectares experienced winter predation at twice the rate of those on larger patches of land, lowering their reproductive success (Litvaitis et al., 2006, p. 1195). A reduced habitat size does not provide sufficient food availability or protection, which could lead to risky behaviors such as venturing out of safe thickets to search for food (Environmental Defense Fund, 2008, p. 6).  Attempts to travel long distances between fragments make them more vulnerable to being spotted by a predator. In some cases, the gaps between fragments grow so large that it inhibits the rabbits’ ability to safely travel between fragments and interact with others in the species (Stallard, 2014, para. 6).

The inability to travel efficiently between fragments negatively affects gene flow, influencing the long-term survivability of the New England cottontail. If the rabbits cannot breed with individuals outside of their isolated population, genetic diversity will decrease and lead to small, scattered inbred populations. Genetically similar populations are problematic in the inheritance of harmful recessive disorders and an increased susceptibility to widespread illness if the colony is exposed to a disease (Keller & Waller, 2002, p. 230).

Between these negative effects associated with habitat fragmentation and reduction resulting from continuous forest fire prevention, hope for this rabbit is scarce if current conditions persist.  But, with an organized forest management plan, we believe this species could hop back onto its feet. It is clear that the largest factor influencing the decline of populations of the New England cottontail is the loss of optimal shrubland habitat. Therefore we propose the use of prescribed fires on private and public land in Massachusetts to regenerate shrubland habitat, promoting the survival of the New England cottontail while curtailing expansion of the eastern cottontail species.

Prescribed fires are artificial procedures that are performed in certain environments to support a healthy ecosystem. Also known as controlled burns, they involve the intentional application of a controlled fire to an area by a group of fire specialists to manage the landscape (USDAFS & National Association of State Foresters, n.d.b, What is Prescribed Fire? section, para. 1). The significance of prescribed fires is that it performs the same job as a forest fire, only with the added safety of controlled, specific parameters of where the fire will occur. They are often used to accelerate the recycling of short, dense vegetation such as dead trees, shrubs, and fallen branches that build up on the forest floor (USDAFS, n.d., Fuels in your National Forest section, para. 1). Reducing excessive ground debris promotes a healthy ecosystem because it encourages growth of new vegetation while also reducing the risk of potentially dangerous wildfires (USDAFS & National Association of State Foresters, n.d.b, What is Prescribed Fire? section, para. 1). If prescribed fires are used in stand forests to regenerate shrubland habitat, then a healthy environment will be available in which New England cottontails can thrive.

Since rabbits are already prolific in the area, it may be hard to convince many individuals that the New England cottontail, which is phenotypically identical to the more abundant eastern cottontail, is worthwhile to protect; nonetheless, there are many reasons to think otherwise. The New England cottontail is native to this area and has evolved concurrently with the natural landscape to fill a very specific niche in primary successional forests (Litvaitis et al., 2008). Conversely, the eastern cottontail was introduced to New England for hunting purposes in the 1800’s and has spread throughout the entire region, replacing the native cottontail in most habitats (USFW, 2009). The two species interact by means of scramble competition, which Probert and Litvaitis (1996) define as a “rapid use of a limited resource by one of the competing species” (p. 289). Shrubland is a limited resource, and if the eastern cottontail inhabits the land first, it makes it much harder for the New England cottontail to survive. On that note, the reestablishment of New England cottontail populations on shrubland would ideally decrease the spread of the eastern cottontail. Curtailing the spread of the eastern cottontail is important because it would decrease the chances of people coming into contact with the eastern cottontail and the problems it carries.

The eastern cottontail can successfully survive among urban and suburban areas, and as populations have increased, so too has their degree of nuisance to homeowners and farmers. Populations of the more abundant cottontail species have spread into human areas and wreaked havoc over gardens and lawns by eating homegrown flowers and gnawing on ornamental shrubs and trees (Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, n.d., para. 1). The eastern cottontails are also pests on farmland because their indiscriminate appetite also appeals to commercially grown vegetables. Although the New England cottontail has a similar diet to its invasive sister species, it is highly unlikely they would forage in these open urban areas because there is very little protective vegetation to hide them from predators.

Perhaps more disconcerting than their indiscriminate diets is the fact that eastern cottontails have been known to carry infectious parasites that are zoonotic to humans. Eastern cottontails carry several species of ticks, which often harbor infectious bacteria. One such tick, the American dog tick, carries a bacteria called Franciscella tularensis, which causes tularemia. Tularemia is a bacterial illness endemic in eastern cottontail populations (L. Minter, personal communication, November, 10, 2014). It can be transmitted to humans if they eat infected rabbits, inhale aerosolized contaminants, get bitten by a tick carrying Francisella tularensis, or come in contact with the skin of infected rabbits (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2011a). Tularemia is common in Massachusetts, and increasing populations of eastern cottontails could increase the likelihood of human exposure to the infectious bacteria (CDC, 2011b). New England cottontails may also carry Francisella tularensis, but its reclusive nature and avoidance of open spaces make the likelihood of transmittance to humans quite low. For these reasons, we believe that shrubland habitat needs to be regenerated on private and public land to protect the New England cottontail.

Our proposal involves working with public and private land to create sustainable shrubland habitat for New England cottontails. In 2006, the USDA Forest Service Forestry Inventory and Analysis estimated that 69% of forestland in Massachusetts was privately owned (Kittredge, 2014). Therefore, working with private landowners is crucial in guaranteeing reestablishment of this species across the state.  Landowners with property that is ideal forshrubland reestablishment (for instance, land that is close to existing New England cottontail populations) would be contacted to discuss the options of prescribed fires on their land. Private landowners with great expanses of land might not be affected at all if only a portion of their property was being managed through prescribed fires for shrubland in contrast to their whole property. Another way a landowner can contribute to shrubland reestablishment is by creating an easement and selling the developing rights to the land (United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service [USDANRCS], n.d.a). In Massachusetts, selling the developing rights gives a landowner access to additional tax savings (Catanzaro & Kittredge, 2014), and an easement allows non-owners to use the property (Wellish, n.d.). The money gained from this could also be used to help pay for someone to come in to perform the prescribed fire.

Money is a major factor that would influence a private landowner’s decision to participate in a project to save a rabbit they might not care about.  Somebody has to be paid to manage the land, and this cost may not be within the average landowners’ budget. Luckily, there is a financial assistance program available for landowners who have interest in a project to help restore a native species on their property. “Working Lands for Wildlife” is a jointly run program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It has “$33 million in financial assistance [available to private landowners] to combat the decline of seven specific wildlife species whose decline can be reversed and will benefit other species with similar habitat needs” (USDANRCS, 2013); the New England cottontail is one of these species. Through the program, assistance and resources are provided to tackle every aspect of the habitat restoration including financial and technical assistance, details on easements, and landscape planning. With a little effort, landowners may possibly have the project fully funded through this program, greatly increasing the likelihood of landowner participation.  We are realistic in that we understand that there are often still expenses that may not be covered by funds or programs, and there is no way to force a private landowner to manage their land to suit this cottontail. Consequently, we also propose to implement more practices to regenerate shrubland habitat on Massachusetts’s state-owned land.

Although a majority of forestland in Massachusetts is privately owned, about a fifth is still owned and managed by the state (Kittredge, 2014).  The option of controlled fires is much more plausible for treating state lands because private landowners would not have to be involved. We suggest controlled fires of land large enough to maintain New England cottontail populations, but close enough to others to allow for travel and proper gene flow. Within the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation [MDCR], controlled fires are already being used for the “restoration of native communities and ecological processes” (MDCR, 2012, p. 24). These events are reviewed by the local fire department (Sargent, & Carter, 1999).

Once private and public land have undergone prescribed fires and time has passed to allow for the development of proper New England cottontail shrubland environment, the next step is re-populating the land.  The Roger Williams Zoo is actively breeding, raising, and releasing New England cottontail rabbits back into the wild.  In collaboration with this zoo, we believe that we can establish populations in captivity that will be releasable into the new habitat once it is ready.  The idea is to lower the concern for scramble competition with the eastern cottontail by giving the New England cottontail more of a chance to establish itself on these new lands. To prevent eastern cottontails from entering the developing habitat prior to the release of New England cottontail, sturdy fences made of chain link or welded wire could be installed during development. A cheaper alternative to chain link and welded wire would be to use chicken wire with small (< 1 inch) mesh (Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, n.d.).

Despite our focused effort to devise a detailed plan for reestablishing this rabbit, the idea of depending on the willingness of landowners to help save this cottontail may leave many skeptical of our initiative. The effectiveness of our proposal lies in finding both the right landowners to work and an understanding that not everyone will be on board with this plan. A case study proving the willingness of landowners in Massachusetts to save this species involves three landowners in Mashpee, Massachusetts that took advantage of the “Working Lands for Wildlife” incentive-based program (USDANRCS, n.d.c).  Together the Trustees of Reservations, the Orenda Wildlife Land Trust, and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe collectively have 100 acres of adjacent habitat that was restored to benefit “New England’s only native rabbit” (USDANRCS, n.d.b). Through prescribed fires, the conjoined area was cleared out to “encourage a dense shrub undergrowth” (USDANRCS, n.d.b). The project began a couple of years ago, and results have already been seen in the reestablishment of the New England cottontail. This case study is proof that there are private landowners willing to repurpose their property to benefit our native cottontail and that there are resources available to help realize these projects.

Despite the success of the Cape Cod project, we expect some landowners to initially resist our proposal. Landowners hold a majority of forest land in Massachusetts and may show a great deal of resistance if they do not agree with either the plans to redesign their property or the money it takes to bring about these changes.  Many might not like the idea of having their trees burned down because they enjoy the view and ambience of a stand forest.  While their concern is valid, our plan would focus more on working with individuals with large plots of land and in some cases so much land that removing a portion would not affect their view.  As for financial concerns, landowners can arrange to have the project fully funded through easements and government incentives like “Working Lands for Wildlife”. When money and personal preferences are no longer a factor, landowners may be willing to participate in shrubland habitat reconstruction.

Other audiences that may not be receptive to our proposal include the general public who recreationally use forest habitats or those that fear fire would pose a threat to their safety.  People who take advantage of hiking trails in Massachusetts may be disappointed to see their favorite pathways remodeled.  These nature lovers need not worry too much; a methodical land management plan would be initiated to benefit both people and the New England cottontail. Although some trails and paths may be removed, restoring shrubland would not completely eradicate a large part of these popular destinations. As for those uncomfortable with the idea of fires in their neighborhoods, they can rest assured that professionals will perform the controlled burns. Current regulations dictate that permits are required for prescribed fires in addition to prior land surveying (Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, 2006).  Educational information will be made available to the public to inform them of what is happening and to assure them that they are in no danger.

With support from the general public, private landowners, and state officials, the New England cottontail has a chance of rebounding after decades of neglect. The decline of early successional forests triggered the population decrease, but the use of prescribed fires will create more shrubland habitat for these reclusive rabbits. A breeding program in conjunction with the Roger Williams Zoo will increase their wild population numbers. This release will add genetic diversity to natural populations while displacing the harmful eastern cottontails. Although it can be costly to create and maintain shrubland habitat, government-funded programs like MassWildlife and the NRCS allocate money to help private landowners willing to participate in land management practices to reestablish the species. It might seem silly to try to save a species of rabbit, but the New England cottontail makes a great candidate for repopulation. While many focus efforts on species with long gestation periods and low fecundity, New England cottontails “have 2 to 3 litters per year that average 5.2 young per litter” (Berenson, 2012).  With this reproductive rate, this rabbit can reestablish populations once the landscape is restored, bringing this species back from the brink of extinction. If humans are a significant reason for the rapid decline in New England cottontail populations, then shouldn’t we do our part to make sure they once again have the ability to grace their homeland again?















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