Saved by a hare

Conservation efforts make Nomans Land a new home for 13 New England cottontails, a rare species native to the Islands.

A New England cottontail takes to its new home on Nomans Land. - MassWildlife

Thirteen New England cottontails found a new place to call home Tuesday, May 7 — Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Eileen McGourty, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, explained that due to its operation as a military training site, Nomans Land, appropriately named, is not home to any mammalian predators to the New England cottontail. Conservation efforts have been in the works since early February 2018 to release the cottontails on Nomans Land, because the self-sustaining environment and dense thickets provide a nearly idyllic environment for these lucky first few bunny inhabitants.

Unlike the Eastern cottontails we are all too familiar with on Cape Cod and the Islands, the New England cottontails were considered in 2015 as potential candidates to be protected under the Endangered Species Act, ultimately being classified instead as a rare species, driving interest in their continued conservation, said McGourty.

The bunnies have had quite a journey to this point of refuge, spanning four months. McGourty explained the extensive process that had to be completed to get them to Nomans Land, from capture to extensive studies and care, and finally navigating the unexploded ordnance still buried in the Island.

“These rabbits came from Cape Cod, and were trapped by MassWildlife over the course of February and March,” McGourty explained. The cottontails were then transported to Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton and cared for by students there, as part of the multigenerational, collaborative effort to succeed in the conservation of the species. Roger Williams Park Zoo offered all veterinary care for the rabbits while in captivity, from collecting tissue samples from each rabbit, later processed for DNA analysis at the University of Rhode Island (URI), to deworming the rabbits, and making sure that they were treated for fleas and ticks.

In the end, the 13 rabbits that now call a piece of Martha’s Vineyard home were identified as New England cottontails through extensive DNA analysis by URI — five females and eight males.

Monitoring of the rabbits will not come easily, and requires innovation to address the unexploded ordnance still in place.

McGourty explained that 10 of the 13 cottontails are equipped with GPS collars in order to track both their survival and their movement. The other three have VHF collars, used to track their survival only.

“The GPS collars will take data points, and as soon as the rabbits get close enough to the base stations, information will automatically download,” said McGourty. Traditionally, researchers would look to triangulate the data in order to determine the whereabouts and habits of the rabbits, but the uniqueness of Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge and restricted access to humans makes that near impossible, McGourty said.

With the release of these 13 cottontails, of course, comes the hope of reproduction. Initial data and draft environmental assessments pointed to the potential for Nomans Land to host up to 600 New England cottontails, a number that McGourty is optimistic the Island could reach one day.

URI conducted studies using fecal matter from the initial 13 rabbits, analyzing pellets from each of them in order to assemble genetic panels for each of the rabbits, which would allow researchers to in the future determine if samples collected from the Island were coming from the cottontails released on the Island, or from their offspring.

“With the survival data we will be able to collect from these initial 13 rabbits, we will be able to complete modeling to determine how long it will take to jumpstart this population, including how many releases will need to occur to reach from 500 to 600 cottontails,” McGourty explained.
There is, of course, no way to know how the rabbits feel about their new home, but McGourty said that each of them reacted to their release “a little differently,” with some reluctant to leave their crates, and others boldly hopping through the crowd of researchers and conservationists. McGourty said that they all seemed to take to the shrubbery eventually, the main reason for their release on the Island in the first place.

McGourty has since returned to the Island twice. The day after release, she returned to monitor initial tracking of the rabbits — after 24 hours, all 13 were still alive, and generally in the area of their release.

The next day, McGourty had a “neat experience,” returning to the Island early in the morning to the sight of one of the cottontails hopping down a trail. “I can’t say if they’re happy, but it looks good so far,” she said. “It was a really exciting day, and it’s a really exciting time.”