Former Navy gunnery range slated to be turned into bunny island

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is planning to establish a population of cottontail rabbits at Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge.


By TANNER STENING | Cape Cod Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 2, 2018

The New England cottontail population will be getting another boost on Cape Cod and its Islands.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday it plans to establish a population of the vulnerable species of rabbit on Nomans Land Island National Wildlife Refuge in Chilmark, Mass. The federal agency says the coastal shrubland on the 600-acre island, which is believed to have harbored the rabbits in the past, is capable of supporting more than 600 cottontails.

Once run by the U.S. Navy, Nomans Land was acquired by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the late 1990s. According to the Nomans Land Island website, "both the island and its surrounding waters have been closed to public access since the Navy began leasing it in the 1940s as an aerial bombardment and gunnery range. Though range operations ended in 1996 and management responsibility for the island was transferred to the Service in 1998 to become a national wildlife refuge, the continued presence of unexploded ordnance throughout the island requires that it remain administratively closed to the public."

Biologists with the Eastern Massachusetts National Wildlife Refuge, in consultation with cottontail researchers, deemed the island south of Martha's Vineyard fit for the experiment, which includes releasing rabbits caught in the wild on the mainland or those reared through captive breeding programs.

Similar efforts at reintroducing populations of the New England cottontails have been made on Patience Island in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay in recent years.

A 67-page environmental assessment released by the wildlife service Thursday outlined the plan for Nomans Land. The report is open for public comment until March 2. A spokeswoman for the federal agency did not return phone calls seeking comment.

After more than a decade of conservation work, the cottontail's population has rebounded, and it is no longer listed as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act of 2015. But the rabbit -- which prefers to live in "dense thickets associated with young forests, shrublands and coastal barrens," according to the wildlife service -- is considered at risk, and the service has called for continued conservation efforts.

Habitat loss is still an ongoing problem, affecting the rabbit's ability to find food and shelter and to breed. Less than 3 percent of New England cottontail habitat remains in Massachusetts, officials with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife say.

"About 65 percent of Massachusetts is forested, but there's different kinds of forest," said Marion Larson, the state agency's chief of information. "New England cottontails require young forest habitat, and that's really thick, unkempt, bushy stuff. They thrive in the places that you and I would be having a hard time pushing through."

The New England cottontail differs from the more common eastern cottontail, which competes with its at-risk counterpart for habitat. The eastern cottontail, which is what people see in the wild most of the time, was introduced in Massachusetts, Larson said.

"(The New England cottontail) is truly the only native cottontail in Massachusetts," she said.

The New England cottontail saw population decline in the past half-century as young forests were cleared for development and as existing forests matured into older and taller woods, which reduced ground-level refuge and food for the species.

On Cape Cod, efforts to save the cottontail's habitat have come through regimes of prescribed burns at the Mashpee National Wildlife Refuge, where the bunnies are known to live.

By thinning out dense shrubs and tall trees, the burnings make an area more desirable for the rabbit and other species that enjoy the same habitat, such as the ruffed grouse, wood turtle and golden-winged warbler.

Larson said Cape Cod harbors the largest population of the New England cottontails.

(c)2018 Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
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