A tiny island three miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, once used for military training, could soon be the home to cottontail bunnies.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to establish a population of cottontails on Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nomans Land is considered part of the town of Chilmark, but remains uninhabited because it was used as target practice, and is home to unexploded ordnance from military training. The island was owned by the U.S. Navy and used for military practice from the early 1940s through 1996, according to a history of Nomans Land posted on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. Management of the island was transferred to the federal agency in 1998 for the “protection and management of migratory birds,” the site states.
“There’s no real danger to rabbits themselves,” Eileen McGourty, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said. “They’re not going to cause anything that’s unexploded out there to explode.”
The bunnies are 15 to 17 inches long, and weigh in at 2 pounds, according to newenglandcottontail.org.
“The continued presence of unexploded ordnance throughout the island requires that it remain administratively closed to the public,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website states. “Waters surrounding the island continue to be restricted; however, that is not under the jurisdiction of the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service].”
The proposal is the latest in a decade’s worth of efforts to restore the at-risk rabbit population that’s been in decline over the past 50 years in New England and eastern New York, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Patience Island off the coast of Rhode Island is also home to cottontails.
Cottontails are the only rabbit native to New England.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to list the cottontail, but called for continued conservation efforts.
Nomans Land, because it’s a federally owned preserve of more than 600 acres, is a good location because there are few predators. “That habitat provides a good home for them,” McGourty said. The island is an early successional-type habitat, which means it has weedy grass, grasslands, old fields or pastures, shrub thickets, and young forest. “There are no mammalian predators out there,” she said, noting that coyotes and owls are the main threats to cottontails. “There are some avian predators out there, but only a few, and we’re not overly concerned with them.”
Nomans Land has already proven to be a good home for other species, she said. “There are lots of things living out there,” McGourty said. “The habitat is good, and it’s self-sustaining.”
According to a draft environmental assessment released Thursday, habitat evaluation suggests that self-sustaining coastal shrublands could sustain a population of 600 cottontails or more. The population would be created through the release of wild-caught rabbits from mainland sites or individuals reared through an already established captive breeding program, the draft assessment states.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would start small, releasing about 10 rabbits that could be tracked, McGourty said. It will be a slow process over many years, she said: “We’ll be modeling to see how many are optimal to release out there.”
Because of the unexploded ordnance, the bunnies would be likely be equipped with GPS for tracking, rather than telemetry, which would require a human roaming the island with tracking equipment, she said.
“We can’t just walk around the island,” McGourty said. “[People] have to be careful of the unexploded ordnances.”
Using the GPS, trackers would know where the bunnies are going on the island and whether they continue to survive, she said.
A graduate student performed a study for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that indicates food is available and plentiful for the rabbits, McGourty said.
Copies of the draft environmental assessment are available online at fws.gov/refuge/nomans_land_island/ or at public libraries, including Aquinnah. Comments can be sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Attn: New England Cottontail EA, 73 Weir Hill Rd., Sudbury, MA 01776, and must be postmarked by March 2.
On Tuesday, the board of selectmen in Chilmark endorsed the idea of bunnies inhabiting the island in a unanimous vote.
Even if the plan is approved, it won’t likely be until the spring of 2019 when bunnies are released on Nomans Land, McGourty said.
Nomans Land is a good choice because it’s under federal control, she said: “’It’s not in jeopardy of being built upon.”
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened Nomans Land to requests by filmmakers to shoot on the unpopulated Island, but only under the direct supervision of federal officials.