Landscape ecologist Chad Rittenhouse works to conserve New England cottontail habitat

Chad Rittenhouse
Chad Rittenhouse

Chadwick Rittenhouse, assistant research professor of landscape ecology and wildlife in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, grew up hunting and fishing in Wisconsin. His love of the outdoors and interest in helping preserve the delicate balance between humans and animals has set him on an personal, academic and real-world mission to help save a species, the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis).

While it seems there is no shortage of rabbits, the problem is a declining population of New England cottontails, nearly identical to the more common Eastern cottontail. According to Rittenhouse, the two species are so similar that, “ There are probably only six people in the state who can tell them apart by looking at them.” Positive identification is made at the genetic level and by observing their different choices of habitat, a preference that has made all the difference for the beleaguered New England cottontail.

New England cottontails live in overgrown fields, tangles and thickets, and young forests and woodlands between 3 and 20 years of age. Historically their habitat was created by hurricanes, forest fires, beaver dams, active tree cutting from logging or farm abandonment. Once the forest grows up, the New England cottontails must move on. Their more adaptable relatives, the Eastern cottontails, take up residence in a broader range of habitats.

The New England cottontail is currently under consideration for listing as a federally endangered species, and Rittenhouse is part of a team of wildlife professionals, including Howard Kilpatrick (PhD 2010, UConn), Paul Rothbart (BS 1975, UConn) and Lisa Wahle (MS 1990, UConn) working with funding from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to quantify the amount of New England cottontail habitat in Connecticut. Rittenhouse estimates there are 13,536 acres of potential habitat for New England cottontails.

A New England cottontail
A New England cottontail. Photo courtesy of www.newenglandcottontail.org/.

Rittenhouse used a combination of state-of-the-art technology and computer algorithms to determine the potential habitat.  Using images from Landsat 5 and Landsat 7, which recorded light values in the visible and infrared range, Rittenhouse translated the information into an assessment of whether an area is forested or not forested for every year since 1985. Through this approach, he was able to generate a “disturbance list” of where changes have occurred.

He then used aerial photographs to spot-check the data. By engaging in “ground truthing,” Rittenhouse used aerial photographs and actual visits to 1,200 locations to verify his findings.

Hurricane Bob, which struck Connecticut in 1991, “lights up the map,” according to Rittenhouse. The storm hit Eastern Connecticut and blew down thousands of acres of trees much to the benefit of New England cottontails, whose habitat was refreshed. The towns of Lebanon, Canterbury and Scotland in the eastern part of the state and several towns in the northwest corner may be the best places to find New England cottontails.

There are 47 other wildlife species identified by the Connecticut Wildlife Action Plan as species of greatest conservation need, including ruffed grouse, American woodcock, yellow-breasted chat, golden-winged warbler and blue-winged warbler, which are dependent on and flourish in new-growth forests. New England cottontails are good indicators that other species rarely found in Connecticut may be present.

Once upon a time New England cottontails flourished in Connecticut. Land use practices, especially small farming, peaked in the 1930s and 1940s. As farming declined, land was abandoned and trees grew up, creating a heyday for New England cottontails and ruffed grouse. By the end of the 1950s most of the transformation had occurred, and as fields that became forests grew older, the New England cottontail declined, surviving now on the margins of farms and logging operations.

If the federal government lists the New England cottontail as endangered, a process begins that has sweeping effects on agriculture, conservation organizations and the public. Rittenhouse hopes the data he has gathered will lead to action that will conserve and add to New England cottontail habitat while minimizing the impact and cost to humans.

Old field habitat suitable for New England cottontail
Old field habitat suitable for New England cottontail. Photo courtesy of www.newenglandcottontail.org/.

“The next step is to figure out how to focus our efforts to improve forests in a strategic way to maximize habitat. Different sides of the table can help people work together to preserve rabbit habitat,” Rittenhouse says.

“I’m new to Connecticut, the Land of Steady Habits, but I know that when change happens here, it is watershed change like a hurricane.  Planned change is what is needed to save the New England cottontail. The challenge for all of us is how to live in a place and not ruin it for other species,” Rittenhouse said.

By Nancy Weiss