New Hampshire is a heavily forested state, and lots of animals calls those woods home. But not all animals prefer the woods, or big open fields for that matter. The problem is, the in-between can be hard to find and even harder to maintain.
The New England cottontail rabbit, as an example, prefers scrubby brush, and a lack of that type of terrain has left the animal in decline for decades. Heidi Holman, an SEA/SEIU Local 1984 member and biologist with NH Fish and Game, said the animal is very specific when it comes to habitat.
“They like dense thickets, which could be regenerating timber in young forests or invasive plants,” Holman said. “In NH, we’re a highly forested state and a lot of the time if it’s not forest, it’s field. People don’t see the purpose of the in-between phase. The cottontail is a spokesperson for all the species that depend on that stage of vegetation growth.”
Holman grew up here in New Hampshire in the tiny Cheshire County town of Fitzwilliam, where she notes she worked as a firefighter in high school. Eventually she left the state to get her master’s in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota. There, she did a lot of the habitat work that she uses daily working at Fish and Game.
“They taught me how to run chainsaws, apply herbicides, run tractors, and use prescribed burning, which I use all the time for the Kerner Blue Butterfly project — that’s my other project,” she said.
Creating the habitat for the New England cottontail wasn’t enough to bring the species back — they didn’t have enough rabbits to colonize the 1,000 acres they’ve created. So the state is working with zoos on a breeding program. The zoos have been successful, and so far New Hampshire is seeing success, too.
“We have a goal of creating 2,000 acres in New Hampshire by 2030, and that would result in a population of 1,000 New England
cottontails,” she said. “So we’ve been successful in reaching half of that goal, and we’re ahead of schedule. People have been very responsive and willing to create this habitat on their property. We’ve had success in reintroducing them. It looks good, but it’s uncertain how it will persist over time.”
She said there will continue to be a need for people to stay engaged and create more habitat for the cottontails, because it simply doesn’t happen by chance anymore.
“It used to be created by disturbance: beavers, large-scale wind events, fire,” she said. “We’ve modified a lot of these processes and we’ve fragmented the landscape
with development. So the chance of it happening in a meaningful way isn’t likely without our help.”
As Holman noted, the cottontail is sort of the canary in the coal mine for the populations of wildlife that prefer this habitat — in other words, the most visible clue.
“By creating it, we’re protecting all the other species that may not be as visible,” she said.
If preserving habitats such as this can save even one animal at a time, it’s worth it in the long run to make sure our ecosystem remains as it largely has for years.
“If things start disappearing one by one, when does the system collapse?” Holman asked. “We don’t want to get there.”