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Boston and Beyond

March 31, 2013

Seeking to save Peter Cottontail from extinction

The New England cottontail was once so common that Massachusetts author Thornton Burgess adapted one named Peter for the children’s stories he penned a century ago.

But the critter that inspired “The Adventures of Peter Cottontail” and the enduring song that came later faces an uncertain future.

Its natural habitat is disappearing, and without intervention, it could be unhappy trails for the once-bountiful bunny.

Conservationists are hoping a new program to restore shrub lands across the Northeast and captive breeding efforts will help ensure the New England cottontail sticks around for many Easters to come.

“We’re making headway, putting habitat on the ground in some really key places,” said Anthony Tur, an endangered species specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s encouraging.”

New England cottontails were abundant a century ago, thriving in an environment of shrubs, saplings, weeds and vines known as young forest. But in an uncommon turn of events, it is declining human activity to blame for its lost habitat — not urban sprawl.

As neglected agricultural lands reverted back to forest and those forests matured, the population of New England cottontails thinned. More than 80 percent of their habitat disappeared over the past 50 years, according to the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute.

And now conservationists are trying to prevent the New England cottontail from appearing on the endangered species list, a designation that would require a more urgent — and costly — response that could restrict land use and hunting.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Resources Conservation Service are working with landowners and zoos to restore natural habitat and use captive breeding to rebuild the population.

The government has been conducting habitat management and restoration projects for several years in collaboration with private landowners, land trusts and a few Native American tribes as they try to bring back the New England cottontail.

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