Published June 24. 2012 4:00AM Updated June 24. 2012 7:01PM
Providence - Past the enclosures of exotic creatures from far-flung corners of the globe - from the giant anteater to the giraffe, the kangaroo and the Oriental fire-bellied toad - a small cinder block room in the Roger Williams Park Zoo harbors what may be the beginning of a local conservation success story.
With soft, natural light and furnishings of PVC pipe, hay (apparently for rolling in) and small boxes where romantic rabbits can procreate in privacy, this bridal suite of sorts is the epicenter of a project to repopulate New England with its only native bunny.
Once widespread from Maine to Connecticut and into eastern New York state, the New England cottontail rabbit became a candidate for federal endangered species status in 2006. Eastern cottontails, introduced into New England from the mid-Atlantic states by hunters in the first half of the 20th century, now outnumber their native cousins by at least 10 to one over the entire historic range of the New England cottontails, experts say. The native rabbit is nearly extinct in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
"The New England cottontail is a very high wildlife conservation priority right now," said Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at the zoo, standing beside a wall of cages of pregnant female and captive-bred leverets - young bunnies - in the building that also houses the bridal suite, which was at that moment, occupied. The building is not open to zoo visitors.
"It's just about disappeared from most of its range in New England," he said. "Right now, my charge is to breed as many bunnies as we can."
Connecticut is playing an important role in the breeding program, which involves the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state agencies and wildlife researchers in all six New England states. Despite its demise elsewhere due mainly to habitat loss, the New England cottontails still have a core population here, with particular strongholds in Litchfield, Windham and New London counties. The 10 stud and doe wild rabbits used for the breeding program were trapped in an area of the Pachaug State Forest in North Stonington and Voluntown, and on privately owned land in North Stonington.
The trapping was done during the past two winters by staff at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's wildlife office in Franklin. Using Have-a-Heart traps with apples as bait, DEEP staff captured numerous rabbits and sent fecal samples to the University of Rhode Island for testing to distinguish the Easterns from the New England cottontails, then set the Easterns free. The two species look alike but genetically are distinct and do not interbreed.
"This is our native species, and our goal is to maintain the diversity of our native ecosystem and never to have a native species extirpated," Howard Kilpatrick, DEEP wildlife biologist, said. The dense thickets at Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton, he noted, support a large population of New England cottontails. Even though Connecticut supports the most of any New England state, he added, the non-native Easterns still far outnumber their native cousins here.
"Based on identifying over 1,000 specimens, about 80 percent are Eastern cottontails and 20 percent are New England cottontails," he said.
His department is conducting research into whether Eastern and New England cottontails can live side by side in the same shrubby habitat that both rabbits prefer, or whether removal of Easterns from an area leads to an increase in the New England cottontail population. Connecticut is also contributing to the multi-state conservation effort with programs to protect and expand areas of shrubby, "early successional" habitat on state, land trust and privately owned land.
Suzanne Paton, wildlife biologist at the Fish & Wildlife Service office in Charlestown, R.I., said the year-old breeding program at the Roger Williams Park Zoo is a pilot project that, if successful, will be replicated in other New England states. Thus far the captive does have given birth to 14 bunnies, six of which - with ear tags and radio collars - were released this spring on the state-owned Patience Island in Narragansett Bay, chosen because few predators live there. Four survived, the other two having fallen victim to coyotes.
"This is one of the largest conservation efforts we've got going. It's a huge priority for us," Paton said. "Our goal is that the population recovers."
A final decision on whether New England cottontails are put on the Endangered Species List awaits further review by wildlife service officials, she said. In the meantime, if the multi-state conservation, habitat restoration and breeding effort shows that the population can be restored successfully, the listing can be averted.
"We have to demonstrate that it can work, and that we have a clear strategy," she said.
"People laugh," she said, at the notion that a notoriously fecund animal like the rabbit should need a captive breeding program. Don't the Eastern cottontails, they ask, perform the same role in the ecosystem?
"They are our native species that evolved in this landscape, and their decline has been the result of our actions - the clearing of forests and the building of roads, homes and cities," she said. "To maintain the integrity of our forest ecosystem, we need to have all the pieces."
The species declined while Easterns increased, she said, in part because Easterns have been more adaptable to the changing landscape. While New England cottontails are wary of leaving thickets that provide them with food, nests and protection from predators, Easterns are more willing to enter open fields and more developed areas. New England cottontails also have suffered from a loss of young tree shoots and other low-growing plants as the deer population has exploded and stripped the understory bare in many areas.
Perrotti, the zoo's conservation director, said the rabbits' main role in the ecosystem is as prey for owls and other raptors, coyotes, fox, fisher and other animals. Young rabbits are sometimes eaten by rattlesnakes. Their diet, he said, consists of "woody browse," which can include non-native species such as autumn olive, knotweed shoots and multiflora rose, so increasing the population of native rabbits could help curb the invasives.
"We took them for granted," he said. "That's usually what happens. All of a sudden, we said, 'Oh my God, what happened? We've got to do something.'"
The zoo's breeding program, funded with a Fish & Wildlife grant of $50,000 per year for the next three years, is in keeping with the zoo's mission of taking on conservation projects of significance to the New England ecosystem.
"If you look at the environment as a bicycle wheel," Perrotti said, "and you start taking too many spokes out of the wheel, it gets wobbly. Take out too many more and it collapses. It's all connected."
Paton, of the Fish & Wildlife Service, said the public's help is needed in the effort to restore New England cottontails. Keeping cats indoors can help, because cats will prey on young rabbits. Landowners also can help by maintaining shrubby thickets on their properties that provide habitat not just for the rabbits but also for many other species and is in short supply. The service, she said, would prefer the multi-state, multi-agency restoration program work rather than declare the New England cottontail endangered, because that triggers new federal regulations, restrictions and enforcement activities that can, in the end, breed more public resentment than cooperation.
"We can't manage species in a vacuum," she said. "People are part of the equation. We want to make it work for both."