Sunday November 18, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- In a little while Peter Rabbit and Little Bunny Foo Foo will be able to make a new home for themselves and hopefully bring back their population this winter thanks to a group of land developers in the Berkshires.

The population of the New England cottontail, which is nearly endangered and is the only type of hare native to southern Berkshire County, has been drastically dwindled and is now a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The primary threat to the rabbit population is due to ecological succession, the gradual process by which ecosystems change and or develop over time. In the late 1700s much of the forest was cut down and turned into farm land, leaving huge swaths of shrub or brush land. When many of the farmers moved west by the mid-1800s, the land was left and over decades the trees grew back and eliminated the habitat of the rabbits.

John Hitt and his wife, Carrie, grew up in the Berkshires and after learning about the lack of habitat for the New England cottontail, they set out to do something about it.

The Hitts, who own several parcels of land in Otis, purchased two plots within the Hidden Pond development and joined the Homeowners Association. When John saw the opportunity to set aside 85 acres of land that could be used for the rabbits, he brought the idea to the rest of the members.

"As a lifelong outdoors person, I know that land needs to be actively managed in order to realize its full potential," John said.


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"We have been fortunate to find partners who are committed to the same goals."

With the help of federal and state agencies, roughly 35 acres of "low-value" trees will be removed, thus creating an ideal habitat for the animals. The trees will either be made into firewood or chipped up, a spokesman for the project said.

The project has been sanctioned as part of the Working Lands for Wildlife initiative, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conser vation Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service.

Phil Coleman, manager of the Hidden Pond Homeowners Association, said once the members all agreed that the project was the right thing they do, they discovered the federal money was available.

Earlier this year, the two federal agencies awarded $25,000 for the project, Coleman said.

"We’re trying to be good stewards of the land," he said. "We don’t have to be so greedy that there isn’t enough land for other animals to thrive. Land developers often are identified as ‘un-environmental’ and that all we want to do is destroy the forest. I want to counter that."

Working with Massachusetts Forester Peter Tucker and Nick Pitel, a conservation planner with Massachusetts Association of Conservation Districts, nearly 200 acres of land is dedicated for conservation with about 35 solely for the habitat of the New England cottontail.

Tucker said along with the cottontail, at least 20 other animals, identified as "species in greatest need of conservation in New England," will also have a chance to thrive in the newly created preserve.

"Many of these species with declining populations are very familiar, such as ruffed grouse, woodcock, spotted turtle and wood thrush," he said. "I’m encouraged that cutting to create this needed habitat will benefit the (rabbits) and a large number of wildlife species."

He added the types of trees that will be cut are "low-grade" and by cutting them down, it will allow stronger and more diverse trees to grow and form a better forest than the present one.

The project, which is scheduled to be complete in Feb ruary, and is part of a larger effort to provide habitat for the New England cottontail. The Berkshire Natural Coun cil, which has helped dedicate a portion of the 200 acres at Hidden Pond for clearing the "low-value" trees, is also helping implement a similar project on land it owns along the Clam River in Sandisfield.

Coleman said the partnership between all the different parties has created a great working relationship that will hopefully lead to the population return of the rabbits.

"We wanted to create a space for this species to thrive," he said. "It’s just as important to leave this space for the animals and for future generations to enjoy as it is to make a few bucks."

To reach Josh Stilts:
jstilts@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6243
On Twitter: @JoshStilts