The threatened New England cottontail — the region’s only native rabbit, made immortal in “The Adventures of Peter Cottontail” — appears to be making a comeback.
Federal wildlife officials will announce Friday that they are removing the cottontail from the list of candidates to be named an endangered species. It’s the first time any species in New England has been removed from the list as a result of conservation efforts.
“We can now say that future generations of Americans will know the cottontail,” said US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who will visit Dover, N.H., on Friday to help release the first rabbits raised in captivity onto private land. “This is a great Endangered Species Act success story.”
Wildlife officials said the bark-colored rabbits, which have lost nearly 90 percent of their dwelling areas to development, are benefiting from an increasing effort to protect their habitat.
They say a combination of federal, state, and private efforts have secured or will soon secure about 18,000 acres of new habitat for New England cottontails, or about two-thirds of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal for 2030.
As a result, they say, there are now an estimated 10,500 New England cottontails east of the Hudson River, more than three-quarters of the agency’s population target for the species.
The rabbit, which has perky ears and a tail that looks like a puff of cotton, has been the victim of development that has wiped out most of the region’s young forests.
Unlike its abundant cousin, the Eastern cottontail, the New England species relies on the low-lying shrubs of young forests for food and protection from predators, such as raptors, owls, and foxes. Much of the area’s remaining forests have matured and are no longer suitable habitats.
Since the rabbit was classified as a candidate for endangered status in 2006, federal, state, and private landowners have spent more than $33 million to acquire land, track populations, and do other work to protect habitat for the cottontails. The figure is about half of what they expect to spend by 2030.
Federal officials also say the newly protected shrublands will benefit at least 65 other kinds of creatures, including the prairie warbler, box turtle, and bobcat.
No one knows for sure how many of the elusive, well-camouflaged rabbits there really are, and some environmental advocates worry that the federal government may be acting prematurely in removing them from the list of candidates for endangered status, and could ultimately cause them harm.
“This is a disappointing and troubling decision,” said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental advocacy group that has pressed the government to rule on whether the cottontail and other species are endangered.
She worries that politics has played a role in the federal agency’s decision. The protection provided by endangered status would have created an expensive regulatory burden for developers and the government.
“There’s a trend of the Fish and Wildlife Service backing away from the science and basically saying state programs or other conservation efforts are sufficient,” Matteson said. “Without the enforcement capacity of the Endangered Species Act, there’s no way to ensure these programs continue. It feels like the agency is being miserly in terms of providing protection to species in need.”
Anthony Tur, an endangered species biologist and director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s New England Cottontail Initiative, said he fully supports the decision to take the local rabbits off the list.
“In some ways, removing the regulatory burdens makes it easier to protect and promote the species,” said Tur, who hopes the decision will cut red tape.
It has never been easy to galvanize concern for the cottontails, given how much they look like the nonnative Eastern cottontails. Those rabbits, brought to the region by trappers in the 19th century, have flourished because they have better peripheral vision than the native bunnies, allowing them to hop to safety more quickly and thrive in less-forested areas.
“People think they’re everywhere,” Scott Ruhren, director of conservation for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, said of the local cottontails. “But like every species, they are important and deserve a place on the New England landscape.”
He said he has “mixed feelings” and is “cautiously optimistic” about the government’s decision not to declare the cottontails as endangered, while noting that there have been no sightings of the rabbits in Rhode Island in recent years.
They are also believed to have vanished from Vermont, and are known to live only in patches of young forests spread like islands over a few thousand acres across New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
They once could be found in every part of Massachusetts, but now live only in eastern Cape Cod and sections of the Berkshires.
But with enough habitat, wildlife officials say, the rabbits have a good chance of repopulating. They breed before their first birthday, and females have two to three litters a year, ranging from three to eight bunnies at a time.
In recent years, wildlife officials have performed controlled burns to spur the growth of shrubs, and have used a captive breeding program to rear and release 151 rabbits.
On Thursday, Heidi Holman, a wildlife diversity biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, gathered four cottontails that are being reared in a pen at the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Newington. They will be released by federal officials in Dover on Friday.
With only an estimated 100 cottontails in New Hampshire, she worries about their future, but says the federal government’s decision should allow a speedier, less bureaucratic response in efforts to bolster their numbers.
“We are hoping this will make it easier to succeed,” Holman said.