There are cottontails and then there are cottontails.
That little rabbit you may see bounding across your yard is most likely not native to this area. That’s because the New England Cottontail is disappearing from its namesake.
The only native rabbit in southern Connecticut, the New England Cottontail was once widespread from southeastern New York to Maine. Today there are so few this bunny has been named a Regional Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s 2015 Wildlife Action Plan.
Although its numbers have declined 86% since 1960, Connecticut holds the most significant remaining population of New England Cottontails and is playing a leadership role in restoration efforts. There has been no documented evidence of New England Cottontails in Wilton since 2000. The nearest towns where the rabbits have been found are Fairfield, Easton and Bethel. Populations have also been found in northwestern Connecticut and in the southeastern part of the state.
Several forces are working against the New England Cottontail. The thickets it lives in are disappearing, thanks to both man-made and natural changes. Its food is being gobbled up by deer and by the alien Eastern Cottontail, the rabbit we see all the time. Introduced a century ago by hunters seeking new game, the Eastern Cottontail is more adaptable to suburbanization.
There’s also the growing number of hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, and even fishers, for whom rabbit is fine fare.
If all that isn’t bad enough, the New England Cottontail suffers from an identity crisis. It looks so much like an Eastern Cottontail that DNA samples are often needed to confirm that it’s native, not alien.
DEEP’s 91-page Wildlife Action Plan is now in draft form and available for public review and comment at ct.gov/deep/WildlifeActionPlan. Comments will be accepted through Aug. 21.
It has been revised to set priorities for the future of wildlife conservation through the next 10 years. Along with the New England Cottontail, there are 28 other species of land and marine mammals designated as of Greatest Conservation Need, along with 95 species of birds, 31 herpetofauna (reptiles), 73 fish species, 241 species of invertebrates, and 100 species of plants.