In the thicket of it: A search for remnant New England cottontail (sylvilagus transitionalis) and suitable reintroduction habitat within the Connecticut River towns of Windham Co., VT and Cheshire Co., NH

Jones, Alexander S.
Tom Wessels, MA
Department of Environmental Studies
A recent range-wide survey (Litvaitis et al. 2006b) of New England cottontail (NEC: Sylvilagus transitionalis) delineated five regions of current occupancy within New England and documented an overall historic range reduction of 86%. Forty-eight (48) sample locations (searched in 2002) from this range-wide survey fell within my study area of the Connecticut River towns of Windham County, Vermont and Cheshire County, New Hampshire. I searched a total of 125 thicket habitat patches during winter 2005-2006 in order to reassess the status and distribution of NEC within this portion of its historic range. Four methods were used to identify early-successional habitat patches to survey: 1) patches searched in 2002 by Litvaitis et al. (2006b) were revisited and researched; 2) patches were identified by driving roads within the study area; 3) locations were randomly selected from potential thicket-containing land cover types isolated from a Geographic Information System database; and 4) a flyer soliciting public information was posted at area businesses. Forty-two samples of lagomorph fecal pellets were collected during habitat surveys and underwent mtDNA analysis to determine species identification. No NEC were discovered during the course of this study, though eastern cottontail (S. floridanus) and snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) were identified in previously undocumented locations. A multiple logistic regression model created by Litvaitis and Tash (2006) was applied to my study area to identify potential restoration areas for future NEC reintroduction efforts. Landscapes that had a >0.5 probability of containing suitable NEC habitat (as identified by the model) and that overlapped currently conserved lands were considered potential restoration sites. Potential restoration sites were then ranked according to three criteria: probability of containing suitable NEC habitat (0.5-1.0); size of parcel; and proximity to other identified potential restoration areas. Approximately 949 ha within 16 highly ranked restoration sites were identified within my study area through this process-oriented approach. Sites were associated with agricultural lands and were largely concentrated close to the Connecticut River in Walpole and Westmoreland, New Hampshire. Theoretical and practical issues surrounding possible habitat patch occupant misclassification, habitat modeling, habitat restoration, and possible New England cottontail reintroduction are discussed. Any future effort to reintroduce NEC to this portion of its historic range would require clear goals, secure source populations from which to derive founder animals, stakeholder support, adequate funding, and restoration of dense early-successional habitats on and between sites.