Stonington - In a landlocked forest in the northwest corner of town, landscaping contractor Ted D'Onofrio sat at the controls in the cab of his Harvester machine, angling its giant arm around a slender oak, then a hickory, then a tall tulip tree, so its claw could grab and tear them one by one out of the rocky earth.
"I really like trees. I cry when I see them fall," Beth Sullivan said, as wood chips filled the sky around the machine Wednesday. "But I like what we're doing here better."
Sullivan, a Stonington representative of the Avalonia Land Conservancy, was referring to the project under way since May at the conservancy's Peck and Callahan preserves. Essentially, it is turning 26 acres of mixed hardwood forest into the kind of shrubby thicket, "early successional" habitat favored by New England cottontail rabbits, the region's only native bunny.
It is one of dozens of similar projects on thousands of acres across New England since 2008, when initiatives dedicated to restoring populations of the native rabbit and keeping it off the federal Endangered Species List began.
"It started out slow, but we're getting good momentum now," said Anthony Tur, endangered species specialist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's New England office. "We know the habitat work we're doing is benefitting the rabbits. Our successes have been small but measurable."
A decision on whether to add the New England cottontail, now designated as a "threatened" species, to the endangered list will be made by the Fish & Wildlife Service in 2015. Ultimately, the success of projects like the one at the Avalonia property could be a factor in the decision, Tur said. At present, he added, the population is considered stable, though Eastern cottontails - larger, non-native cousins of the New England cottontails that are better adapted to suburban landscapes - are by far still the dominant species.
Suzanne Paton, wildlife biologist with the Fish & Wildlife Service's Rhode Island office, worked with Avalonia on the project, helping them secure the $75,000 in grants to pay the landscaping contractors and other expenses.
While there are 15 or 20 other New England cottontail habitat projects currently underway around the region, she said, this is one of the largest and one with high potential for making a significant positive impact on existing rabbit populations, she said. While sportsmen's clubs, land trusts and private landowners have all undertaken habitat projects on smaller parcels, most of the ones on 20 acres or more - the optimal size for a sustainable New England cottontail population - have occurred on state-owned properties.
"It's very unusual for a private landowner to do a habitat management action that large," she said. "Southeastern Connecticut is a hot spot for New England cottontails, so it's important to maintain these populations in places where they're still relatively abundant."
Wildlife biologists with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, as part of a regional cooperation on cottontail restoration, mapped populations of the native rabbit in Connecticut, showing a cluster in the northwest corner of Stonington near the Avalonia preserves.
"There were rabbits in three directions," Paton said.
Binti Ackley of Stonington, a member of Avalonia's board of directors, recalled that officials from DEEP and the Fish & Wildlife Service approached the group a few years ago about doing a habitat project that would help the existing cottontail population expand. After Avalonia's leadership approved it and grant funds were in hand, there were still months of complex negotiations with adjoining landowners and Connecticut Light & Power, which has a power line corridor adjoining the preserves, for easements and access agreements.
"We had so many hoops to get through," Sullivan said.
To create the "early successional" habitat, a forest is selectively thinned to allow an understory of high- and low-bush blueberries, viburnum and other native shrubs to emerge, explained Jack Berlanda, Wildlife Management Institute contractor overseeing the work for Avalonia. Brush is piled into mounds rather than carted away, so the cottontails can use these areas for nesting and hiding from predators while the thicket grows up.
"It's not clear cut," Berlanda said as he stood at the top of a valley with a few remaining trees interspersed amid emerging blueberry bush shoots. "It's creating a shelter wood."
Sullivan noted that while the New England cottontails are the main reason for the project, the shrubby habitat will benefit many other animals. There are nearly 50 "species of greatest conservation need," from birds to amphibians to small mammals and insects, that depend on this type of habitat, now scarce in New England due to development and reforestation.
"The bunny is the poster child, but we know this habitat will benefit many other species," Sullivan said. "We've seen towhee and prairie warblers and blue-winged warblers here."