Are you a wildlife watcher and fan of floppy-eared furry friends? If so, Maine officials need your help.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is working on its annual tally of New England Cottontail rabbits, and is asking the public to report any sightings of the bouncy bunnies throughout the winter.
“Every winter, we’re out doing surveys to see if we can find them, but of course we can’t be everywhere,” said Cory Stearns, the department’s cottontail specialist, or more technically known as a small mammal biologist.
While it’s hard to imagine a crisis concerning the cute creatures, there is a real worry about their populations. Stearns said there are only about 300 in the state that officials know of, making the rabbits an endangered species in Maine.
Other states, such as New Hampshire, have also declared the rabbits endangered, and the federal government classifies the New England Cottontail as an “at risk” species.
The situation wasn’t always this dire for the bunnies. Stearns said in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, abandoned farmlands were full of dense underbrush and similar thick growth that served as a natural habitat and hiding place for the rabbits.
Over the last century, however, those fields were reclaimed by nature and turned into forests, eliminating the cover and making the rabbits more vulnerable.
“Being rabbits, they’re eaten by every predator on the landscape,” he said.
People used to hunt them too, but dwindling populations led to a ban on hunting the rabbits in the early 2000s, Stearns said. Since then, wildlife officials have been making efforts to restore the populations.
Most recently, he said, officials have introduced bred rabbits into the wild, in the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in 2017 and this year at the Scarborough Marsh Wildlife Management Area. Right now, he said, officials only know of six communities south of Portland where the rabbits are known to live.
“We’re hoping that sightings from the public can help document the spread of the rabbits from where they are,” he said.
Identifying the New England Cottontail is easy. Stearns said there are no other native rabbits in Maine, and the only thing that’s even close, the snowshoe hare, which technically is not a rabbit at all, turns white in the winter for camouflage, while the New England Cottontail rabbits do not.
“If anybody’s seeing a brown rabbit in winter, we want to know about it,” he said.
So if anyone spots a brown rabbit in Maine — or even better, takes a picture — the department is urging the public to hop to their website at mefishwildlife.com/rabbits (or click this link) and report the date, time, location, town, and what habitat the rabbit was seen in.