Habitat restoration at Avalonia Land Conservancy in Connecticut. / New England Cotton Tail.org
HAMPDEN, Mass. - In The Adventures of Peter Cottontail, the children's classic published 100 years ago, the title character offers this advice: "When you need a safe retreat/a briar patch cannot be beat.''
Yet the Laughing Brook Nature Sanctuary here, once home to Peter's creator, Thornton W. Burgess, today lacks briar patches and - not coincidentally - members of Peter's once-abundant species.
The New England cottontail, the only native rabbit east of the Hudson River and once a dietary staple of Pilgrims and bobcats, has become a candidate for the federal list of endangered species.
Despite rabbits' famed fecundity - and the abundance in the region of an almost identical species, the eastern cottontail - government agencies and conservation groups have embarked on a two-decade, $55-million effort to restore the New England cottontail's dwindling habitat and increase its shrinking numbers.
Peter's problem, surprisingly, is not just Old Man Coyote, Reddy Fox and Farmer Brown. It's not just commercial development. It's the seemingly eco-happy spread of New England's forest canopy.
To avoid predators, cottontails need protective ground cover - bushes, thickets, briar patches - that appear in the "new growth" period after farm fields are abandoned or forests burn or blow down. Such undergrowth disappears in the shadow of big trees.
The spread of such "old growth" forest has helped reduce New England cottontail habitat by about 85% over the last half- century, leaving just five isolated colonies, including ones in southern Maine and eastern New York State.
In response, conservation agencies formed the New England Cottontail Initiative to breed the rabbits in captivity and create more of the "new growth" forest that is their favored milieu.
Tom McAvoy, a banker who lives on a 20-acre former dairy farm in Scotland, Conn., has received government money and assistance to help turn his place into a bunny haven. When he was first told of the importance of cutting or burning trees and replacing them with bush, he was skeptical: "I asked myself, 'Why are we spending federal money on this?' It went against the grain.''
Conservation agencies explain that the effort is necessary to avoid an even more costly and elaborate preservation effort if the species were actually listed as endangered and placed under strict federal protection rules.
McAvoy saw the light. He even gave his spread a new name: Cottontail Farm.
The Old Briar Patch
When the Pilgrims arrived four centuries ago, New England's scrubby coast teemed with cottontails. The population of such rabbits exploded and expanded centuries later after many New England farmers finally concluded they could make a better living working in a factory or plowing in the Midwest.
Their fields, abandoned in the years between the Civil War and World War II, grew into a bushy habitat perfect for cottontail.
This brownish rabbit, with its large hind feet, long ears and short white fluffy tail, fired the imagination of young Burgess, who was born in the Cape Cod town of Sandwich in 1874. He also got the idea for characters such as Reddy, Jimmy Skunk and Danny Meadow Mouse and places such as the Smiling Pool and the Old Briar Patch.
After moving to western Massachusetts, Burgess published Peter Cottontail. Peter's real surname (which Burgess borrowed from the English writer Beatrix Potter) is ''Rabbit,'' but in the book he briefly switches to the more important-sounding "Cottontail.''
For much of the century, as any gardener could attest, New England cottontails were plentiful. But those congenial new forests became old forests, and fire suppression and flood control programs reduced two natural ways to reverse the process.
In Vermont, where in 1940 New England cottontails were reported in every county, the last one was spotted in 1971. By 2006 the creature's regional habitat had shrunk to around 4,700 square miles, down from 35,000 in 1960. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named it a candidate for the endangered list.
The proposed solutions are counterintuitive: a captive breeding program for an animal that never seemed to need much help in that department, and clear-cut logging and controlled burning of some forests.
And it's not like there's a rabbit shortage. The New England cottontail's demise has coincided with the rise of a slightly larger but virtually indistinguishable interloper, the eastern cottontail, which was brought to the region from the Midwest in the 1930s for hunting. It has bigger eyes than its New England cousin, which allows it to venture farther and longer from the briar patch without getting eaten.
But with a federal endangerment determination looming in 2015, the goal is a stable New England cottontail population of around 28,000, which might be five times the current total.
How's it going after three years and $24 million? Tony Tur, a Fish and Wildlife Service endangered wildlife biologist, puts it this way: "A lot has been done, but it's a little unclear what the rabbits have done as a result.'' That, he says, is partly because "rabbits are very, very difficult to count'' and their numbers fluctuate seasonally.
But he says the New England cottontail is an "umbrella species": Protect it, and you do the same for dozens of other living things with the same shrinking habitat.
The rabbit's plight is particularly poignant in this western Massachusetts town, where Burgess was living when he died in 1965 and where he wrote many of his 170 books and a nationally distributed daily newspaper column. In an admiring profile in 1944, Life magazine called him "the bedtime-story man.''
Laughing Brook Nature Sanctuary has forests, fields, a pond and brooks, but not enough shrub to sustain the New England cottontails that once roamed here. (The plentiful thickets of Burgess's native Cape Cod, in contrast, still shelter a healthy colony.)
As a naturalist, Burgess was an agonized witness to the extinction of the heath hen, a bird that disappeared before environmentalists' eyes in the 1920s and that helped dramatize the problem of disappearing species. His biographer says Burgess photographed and personally helped band the last hen, which died on Martha's Vineyard in 1932.
"He would have lamented the decline of this species, or any species,'' says Christie Palmer Lowrance, author of Nature's Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess. "And the cottontail, of all animals!''
Read the original story: There goes Peter Cottontail: Reprieve sought for species