By James Niedzinski
---- — LONDONDERRY — While the New England cottontail may look like any other rabbit, it is a rare and endangered species, especially in New Hampshire.
The Conservation Commission has been working with state officials and the University of New Hampshire to secure a sanctuary for the rabbit. The project received full support from the Town Council during a meeting last week.
The sanctuary would be located in the Musquash Conservation area. The species has been in decline for quite some time, due to the increased number of coyotes and foxes in the area, as well as the destruction of its habitat by human development.
Shrubs and thickets the rabbits use for cover are maturing into forests, which also hurts the population. The rabbit uses thick shrubs and brush to hide from predators, state Fish and Game Commission biologist Heidi Holman said.
“This has been a long time coming,” Holman said. “There used to 40 locations where the rabbit could be found statewide in 2000, now there are only eight, the lowest populated state in New England.”
The three-part habitat construction process is expected to take about 15 years, five years for each new segment. The first segment is expected to be 28 acres, and the second and third stages, if completed, will add an additional 32 acres.
This will be at no cost to taxpayers, and may even provide the town with some extra income, said Emma Carcagno, wildlife program assistant at UNH Cooperative Extension.
When the sanctuary is created, trees will be cut down, with shrubs and bushes taking their place. These trees will provide enough money to fuel the project, and there might be some left over for the town as well.
In addition, New Hampshire has been awarded $70,000 for species preservation and conservation land. The state plans to match an additional $65,000. The town will receive a portion of that money to help fund the project, Holman said.
“Creating this type of habitat can appear pretty dramatic at first, as a lot of tree cutting has to be done,” Carcagno said. “But with more than 100 species of New Hampshire wildlife known to thrive in shrubland habitats, there will be so many benefits.”
The first segment of the conservation area runs along a set of power lines. The power lines do not pose any threat to the rabbits, but they do use them as a corridor. The area is located less than two miles from a known, populated location of the New England cottontail, Holman said.
The project is expected to be approved by the Conservation Commission at its next meeting, chairman Deborah Leivens said.
From there, the commission will begin looking for contractors for the first part of the sanctuary. If everything goes according to plan and runs smoothly, construction on the sanctuary will begin in February, Holman said.
Other state and town officials are also in support of the conservation of the species. There are some ideal sites located within the Musquash area and rabbits have been seen there.
Some Londonderry Fish and Game Club members also hunt coyotes, rabbits’ natural predator, said Richard Olson, president of the Londonderry Fish and Game Club and the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation.
“This project is very admirable; it comes at such a low cost to taxpayers,” Town Council vice chairman Tom Dolan said. “Especially since we see so many projects that cost the town considerable amounts of money.”