Wildlife conservation pilot project uses trained K-9 to scout cottontail nests

Left to right: Ben Breslau (undergraduate in honors program), Jenny Kilburn (MS in NRE), Ranger and Suzie Marlow (handler)

A canine searching a field for newborn cottontail rabbits sounds ominous. But if the dog is accompanied by Tracy Rittenhouse, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, then there is no cause for alarm. In the spring, Rittenhouse explored the possibility of training a canine to detect cottontail nests. The project was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hatch Act and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act.

Rittenhouse is planning to examine the reproductive patterns and nesting preferences of the two cottontail species present in Connecticut, the New England and the Eastern. The native New England cottontail has suffered population decline, now dwelling only in a few isolated areas, while the more common Eastern cottontail has sizeable numbers across the state. Her research is part of an ongoing endeavor to ensure the continued preservation of the New England cottontail.

“It’s always helpful to compare species to see how one strategy is working or not working,” Rittenhouse explains. “With the cottontails we have two very similar species and yet we have one that’s increasing and one that’s decreasing in population. Finding out those small differences that are making such a large difference in numbers is essential.”

With Ranger, a black Labrador Retriever led by handler Suzie Marlow, Rittenhouse set out across eastern Connecticut, scouring wildlife management sites, privately owned land and even the Storrs campus, where a nest was found near the Dairy Bar. Many Connecticut residents alerted Rittenhouse to nests they had found where the dog could be taken to be trained. Rittenhouse praised the helpfulness of the public in her project. “We ended up getting calls from throughout the eastern half of the state. The public was very willing, very open to letting us come on their property. I’ve always had really great success working with private landowners here in Connecticut.” NRE graduate student Jenny Kilburn also assisted Rittenhouse with conducting the study.

Suzie and Ranger are part of Conservation Canines, a program pioneered in 1997 at the University of Washington. Conservation Canines began integrating dogs into wildlife sustainability research through the non-invasive tracking of animal feces. This method provides a way for dogs to help researchers ascertain not only information about animal movements by finding scat, but also guide investigators to useful samples for further genetic analysis, revealing physiological features and dietary information. DNA collected from droppings can provide data to measure population size and hormone levels to gauge nutrition and reproductive health, and may indicate if toxins are present. While these are valuable tools, Rittenhouse was curious to know if these dogs could also be trained to search for other materials, thereby facilitating answers to pertinent questions about additional habits and behaviors. She launched this pilot program to determine if these canines could be trained to locate cottontail nests without disturbing the inhabitants, which provided promising results. A short clip of the training is featured here.

A New England cottontail.
A New England cottontail.

Rittenhouse’s conclusion that a canine could be utilized for scouting nests is a notable revelation as Ranger had had no previous experience with tracking rabbits, having only been trained to detect the carcasses of wolverines, minks, bats and birds. While this preparatory investigation did not differentiate between cottontail species, Rittenhouse believes the examination of the nesting habits in the thriving Eastern species, which has grown broadly in numbers and proliferates in a diverse habitat of forests, swamps, fields, and other environments may lead to the discovery of previously unconsidered factors as to why the New England cottontail has struggled to survive and strategies to further safeguard the species.

Over the past decade there has been a concerted effort to save the New England cottontail. New England cottontails were once populous and covered an expansive range but now only reside in a few small areas, their habitat reduced by over 85 percent since the 1960s, as woodlands have aged and lands developed. The New England cottontail’s protection has been primarily achieved through restoration of its habitat, which consists of young forests, overgrown fields, and dense thickets. With the creation of cottontail habitat on wildlife management areas, along with the cooperation of private landowners converting their personal acreage to cottontail habitat, the population of the New England cottontail should increase.

Despite averting inclusion on the federally recognized list of endangered species, where the New England cottontail remained in consideration for nearly a decade until September, there are plenty of remaining concerns about maintaining this species. Since the habitat has been restored enough to sustain the cottontail population, Rittenhouse wants to ensure that progress continues to increase their numbers in order to meet the goal of 13,500 cottontails living in dependably maintained environments by 2030. This target was established by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Current cottontail numbers are approximately 10,500. To help meet the benchmark and determine the achievements of managed habitats, she is interested in their rate of reproduction.

Much of the knowledge on cottontail reproduction has been garnered from observing captive rabbits. Rittenhouse wants to change this focus to nests in the wild to learn more about where female rabbits choose to nest, the habits of the nursing mother, and the behavior of the young. Says Rittenhouse, “We have good information on adult survival and how long an adult lives,” referring to research conducted with NRE graduate Kelly O’Connor in the preceding three years. “What we need to know now is the survival rate of the nestlings, the kits. It’s a very short window; the nesting period is fourteen days.” Faced with a limited time frame to observe nests and their concealment in shallow burrows covered by grass, twigs and other materials, Rittenhouse creatively turned to enlist a partner through Conservation Canines to see if these obstacles could be overcome.

A trained canine providing direction to nests will make Rittenhouse’s research much easier. “Once we see exactly where females nest and which conditions produce the most successful nests, we can then introduce improved conservation measures to create habitats more conducive to those necessities. We also know that in all life stages rabbits die because they’re eaten by a predator so it’s all about figuring out under what conditions can we reduce the likelihood that the rare species will be eaten by a predator.”

Providing New England cottontails with ideal habitat is only one step to ensuring population growth. Rittenhouse’s reappropriation of tracking dogs is facilitating new methods to observe reproduction and breeding practices that may reveal additional ways to advance wildlife conservation initiatives by guarding fragile species against depredation. The project to save the New England cottontail is vital to protect a native species of Connecticut and to maintain biodiversity. The New England cottontail acts as an umbrella species; its habitat will also help sustain a number of other threatened animals and plants, making its survival imperative.

By Jason M. Sheldon