By John Fitts
CANTON – With rabbits sighting so common in the area one might question the need to improve habit.
Conservationists, however, will be quick to tell you that those cute little bunnies you see are almost certainly eastern cottontail, a species introduced from the midwest in the nineteenth century, primarily for hunting.
The native New England Cottontail, however, is much more rarely seen and Jay Kaplan, co-president of the Canton Land Conservation Trust, does not believe there is a population in town.
With that in mind, the trust is getting ready to clear a little more than 10 acres in its Sun, Wind and Woodland Preserve off Breezy Hill Road as part of The New England Cottontail Conservation Initiative, a federally supported, multi-state initiative to provide habitat for the species.
The cut is designed to allow shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, young trees, and even brush piles, – habitat favored by the New England Cottontail. Conservationists would love to some day see evidence that the New England cottontail thrives in the area but, according to Kaplan and others, the effort will help other species, including ruffed grouse, sparrows, buntings, woodcock, sparrows, flickers, deer and wild turkey. In all, there are 47 other species that benefit, according to wildlife officials.
“A hundred years ago, most of Canton was young forest, and brush lands,” Kaplan said. “It was reverting from pasture to forestland and that particular habitat provides for a wide range of animals besides and beyond the New England cottontail. Here in 2016, we have very little of that type habitat left in Canton, which is one of the reasons these species have declined, not just in Canton but throughout Northwestern Connecticut. . . The goal is to percent the New England cottontail from disappearing but there are a lot of ancillary benefits that are not immediate apparent.”
Kaplan said that while some people question why a land trust would cut a portion of forest, he feels that habitat is also an important objective.
“Another goal of the land trust is to promote and preserve diversity that what this is all about – ensuring that there’s a diversity of habitats and different species that can be found,” Kaplan said.
‘Phil’ Philbrick, co-president of the trust, acknowledges he was initially leery of the idea.
“I was a skeptic when I first heard,” he said. “I got excited when they started talking about the number of species – animals and birds – that would be interested in this habitat. That’s when the light went off for me. I’ve gone from being a skeptic to being excited about it.”
Kaplan acknowledged that there are potential issues with the clearing, notably the potential for invasive species to take hold.
“We will take steps, as best we can, to prevent that,” Kaplan said.
The cut, which won’t be visible from nearby Breezy Hill, will take about two weeks, Kaplan said. He and Philbrick said they did talk to neighbors and will work hard to minimize any impact to the neighborhood during the process.
The cutting will be performed by Ted D’Onofrio of TR Landworks. The National Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is reimbursing the land trust for $27,409 of the $30,480 cost.
The New England Cottontail Initiative, launched in 2009, was largely spurred by the goal to prevent the New England Cottontail from becoming a federally endangered species. The effort has been supported in all six New England states with a variety of state and local partners, joining federal agencies.
In 2015, the department of Interior announced the federal listing was not necessary.
That decision came after review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was, in large part, due to the initiative, said Rick Jacobson, Director of the wildlife division for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
In Connecticut, the effort has focused on the western and southeastern portions of the state.
According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Projection, there are some 44 projects that represent more than 900 acres of habitat.
Jacobson said it’s the most rewarding program of which he’s been a part.
“The numbers are growing the population is spreading,” he said. “All the thing we set to accomplish in the conservation strategy have been realized.”
The success of the program in the future will largely hinge on continued cooperation from landowners, he added.
“One vital thing – it’s going to be critical that our private partners manage lands in way that complement the conservation actions,” he said.
In Canton, there is at least one other private landowner that has participated in the program. Additionally, Kaplan said, the land trust acreage is very close to another project in New Hartford. New England cottontail have been spotted in that town, he added.
DEEP wildlife biologist Howard Kilpatrick said the state does not an exact population estimate.
“Their populations are very dynamic and constantly changing as the habitat conditions constantly change,” he said.
But he concurred that the trajectory is a good one.
“We do know that the more we look for them the more we find,” he said. “Also, we continue to create habitat for New Englands and monitor those patches over time to evaluated their use by cottontails.”
It generally takes five years before the habitat becomes suitable for the New England Cottontail, he added.
At 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, the public is invited to learn more as Philbrick and Kaplan lead a hike at the Sun, Wind and Woodland Preserve. Participants will hike the perimeter of the area slated for cutting.
Hikers who would like to take home a small white pine are encouraged to bring a pot and trowel. The area is located on Breezy Hill Road (From Rt. 44 turn north on Indian Hill Road and follow for 1.4 miles to the end. Turn right on Breezy Hill Road and continue uphill about .5 miles, passing a red house on the left. Just past the red house, turn left into the unpaved parking area).
In case of bad weather, see www.cantonlandtrust.org. The Land Trust asks that you leave your dogs at home.
Kaplan said the hike is largely about letting people know what is happening and answering questions.
“It’s also an educational issue,” Kaplan said. “We want people to know we’re doing it and why we’re doing it.”
Learn more about the New England Cottontail Initiative at http://newenglandcottontail.org/