Presence of New England cottontails confirmed in Connecticut

WASHINGTON — At least a few of the once nearly endangered New England cottontail rabbits have found a home at Steep Rock Association’s Macricostas Preserve, tests show.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has released a “pellet analysis” of several rabbit droppings it tested from the 500-acre preserve, which were collected by a group of volunteers last winter.

The analysis, part of DEEP’s efforts to track the species, shows that three of the five samples the “citizen scientists” sent to the lab were, in fact, New England cottontail rabbits.

“Full blown surveys and quality data collection takes a lot of work, something that many entities in the conservation field simply can't afford, but thanks to volunteers they can be made possible,” Conservation and Program Leader Rory Larson said about the project. “The knowledge gained by all involved is incredibly valuable.”

Macricosta’s pellet survey, the first on the preserve, was part of a state effort to map out where the New England cottontails still live and, in some areas, inform habitat rehabilitation or other efforts.

Larson said he isn’t sure yet what the confirmation will mean for DEEP’s efforts at Macricostas, but that Steep Rock will be incorporating the results into its management plan for the preserve.

The survey is one of many ways state, federal and non-governmental organizations across the region have been working since 2009 to save the cottontails, Connecticut’s only native rabbit species. The rabbits were considered a candidate for the endangered species list in 2006 after their range decreased by 85 percent, mainly due to habitat loss, according to DEEP.

They were taken out of consideration for the list in 2015 once the species began to rebound.

Larson and a small group of volunteers had ventured across the preserves’ wooded areas in search of droppings, which they put into baggies with its location and sent to the lab for testing.

Of those that were not identified as New England cottontails, one sample was found to be an Eastern cottontail and another could not be identified.