Residents stew over plan to boost bunnies

COPAKE—A rabbit’s life is no hop in the park.

That’s especially true if the rabbit is a New England cottontail, a “species of special concern,” with only 10,000 to 15,000 in existence.

The New England cottontail’s predicament is two-fold. First, their preferred habitat called “young forest” is getting old and therefore, is no longer available. And second, what suitable habitat exists is being taken over by an invasive rabbit, a/k/a, the eastern cottontail.

The state Department of Conservation (DEC), along with other agencies, is working to help the New England cottontail make a comeback. One of the places the DEC aims to make that happen, since some New England cottontails already live nearby, is on a 689-acre tract of land the DEC purchased earlier this year. The land spans the towns of Taghkanic, Ancram and Gallatin and is called the Doodletown Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

The DEC hosted a public meeting Monday night, December 4 at the Copake Park Building to have several experts discuss multiple aspects of the DEC’s planned wildlife management practices at the Doodletown WMA.

About 60 were in attendance, and the public was asked to hold comments, questions until the speakers were finished. The public could then go to tables where the experts were stationed and have their questions addressed there.

DEC Region 4 Wildlife Manager Michael Clark ran the show and held each of the six speakers to a 15-minute time limit, consequently most of them did some speedy talking to fit everything in and get through their slides.

Speakers included DEC Region 4 Wildlife Biologist Selinda Brandon, who gave a Doodletown WMA Young Forest Initiative (YFI) update; The Nature Conservancy Director of Ecological Management Troy Weldy, who talked about New York’s forests, their role in carbon sequestration and the benefit young forest can have within forested landscapes; Audubon NY Forest Program Manager Suzanne Treyger, who talked about how different age classes of forests can benefit birds; SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry Research Scientist Amanda Cheeseman, who discussed her research on New England cottontail (NEC) in the Hudson Valley and the need/benefits of young forest to them; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Biologist Noelle Rayman, who addressed the status of the NEC, the need for conservation and creation of NEC habitat within identified focus areas; and Ancram Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) Member Andrew Wilcox, who discussed his use of satellite imagery to analyze the Doodletown WMA’s forest structure.

Ms. Brandon said the DEC has conducted an inventory of the Doodletown WMA, which contains 664 acres of forested habitat, 24 acres of wetlands and one acre of open water. Vernal pools have also been found there and have been mapped via GPS. In implementing the YFI at Doodletown, the DEC is targeting not only the New England cottontail, but also the ruffed grouse, American Woodcock, warblers, wood turtles and other species of birds, mammals and reptiles that must live amidst diverse plants including grasses, wildflowers, vines, shrubs, seedlings and saplings.

The DEC will create areas of young forest where there is currently a mature forest. Cutting down some of the old trees in 10 to 15% of the WMA over 10 years will allow the forest to regenerate naturally.

Ms. Brandon said a crew will come in for one or two weeks following the cuts in late spring or early summer to remove invasive species manually to decrease chemical use, to which nearby residents have objected.

The DEC’s habitat management plan is still being completed; it will likely be finalized sometime this coming winter. Once it is done a public information session will be scheduled.

And implementation should start soon thereafter. Due to restrictions, any tree cutting would not take place until next winter at the earliest, according to DEC Public Information Officer Rick Georgeson.

Dr. Cheeseman, who recently earned her PhD in New England cottontails, noted the dire straits the rabbits are in with an 86% loss of their historic range over the last 50 years. This rabbit is now found only in five isolated regions of New York and New England.

She described the eastern cottontail, which was introduced here to improve hunting opportunities, as an invasive species, larger than the New England cottontail, it is somewhat lighter in color and has longer ears. She then showed a slide of “obligatory cute baby bunny” shots.

Surprisingly, the New England cottontail serves as food for many unlikely “prey species.” It’s not just fox, coyote and hawks, but also skunks, deer, herons and weasels that will eat a meal of rabbit, she said, showing pictures of each animal in the act.

Because they don’t have much good young forest habitat with low-growing vegetation to live, breed and hide in, these rabbits are getting picked off right and left. New England cottontails are also being pushed out of their habitat by road construction and, because they rarely travel more than a half mile, they cannot find new suitable homes.

Eastern cottontails are able to colonize young forests earlier than New England cottontails and so when the New England rabbits are ready to move in the eastern cottontails are already ensconced at the same location.

In an email sent after the meeting, Jennifer Berne, a resident of Westfall Road which borders the WMA, wondered, “Why in heavens name would anyone spend several years cutting down a mature forest, to turn it into a young forest that an invasive species of rabbit will move into first, reproduce rapidly, and then in year-5 proceed to push a newly-introduced rarer species of rabbit out of?!?!”

Part of Dr. Cheeseman’s response to the query states, “Myself and my collaborators at SUNY-ESF have been studying ways that we can use these ecological and landscape factors to manage young forests and give New England cottontails a competitive advantage while discouraging eastern cottontails from using the managed areas. We have also been working with the NYSDEC to incorporate these suggestions into their young forest management plans, including those planned at Doodletown, WMA, and are working with them to monitor the response of both cottontails to management activities. If no management is done to create young forest there is every possibility that the New England cottontail will disappear from our forests.”

A comment letter distributed at the meeting and signed by about 35 residents notes, “The most important difference of opinion concerns DEC’s proposed cutting of trees in potentially 70 to 140 acres in this forest of Regional Significance. Originally this area was covered in trees. What is left of the regional forest is in the process of recovering from clear cutting that took place 180 or more years ago. True maturity for this forest will take another few hundred years.

Uninterrupted forest is required for many declining species for whom any logging in the WMA spells more decline than they can tolerate. The DEC claims that the YFI and this particular WMA are meant to address the endangered New England cottontail rabbit. A conservation ethic requires a holistic approach for all species, not just the New England cottontail. We think that to reverse numerical decline in the cottontail rabbit, the DEC should first learn the reason for its decline, and once identified, address those issues. We do not think it is for lack of rabbit habitat since this particular WMA is surrounded by shrub and young forest habitat,” the letter said.

The Ancram Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) reviewed the issues related to the Doodletown WMA and wrote a position paper at the request of the Ancram Town Board.

The CAC concludes, “These environmental issues with potentially serious fallout for Ancram need to be satisfactorily addressed by the DEC before implementation of a YFI WMA at the Doodletown site. The CAC urges the Town of Ancram to closely monitor the plans put forward by the DEC for this property and to resist, if possible, any plans to clear cut portions of this regionally significant mature forest.”

Issues of concern mentioned include: creating the opportunity for invasive species to become established; management of invasives with toxic herbicides that may affect wildlife, wetlands and groundwater; de-stabilization of soils and the interruption of migratory wildlife corridors by the clearing of woodland.

To contact Diane Valden email moc.r1560765161epapa1560765161ibmul1560765161oc@ne1560765161dlavd1560765161

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