CONCORD, N.H. -- Nine rabbits considered an endangered species in New Hampshire are now calling the state home.
The nine New England cottontails were born in a captive-breeding facility at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island earlier this year.
They are spending the winter in a special outdoor pen in Newington, N.H., and will transition to life in the wild. Eventually, radio collars will be fastened to them when they are released.
Once common throughout the Northeast, the New England cottontail population has decreased dramatically over the past half century as development of land and natural forest growth have cut into its available habitat.
Projects are under way to restore 2,000 acres of shrubland habitat across New Hampshire for the rabbit by 2030. This winter, biologists are providing supplemental food and will be monitoring areas where wild New England cottontails are known to occur. The native rabbits are 15 to 17 inches long with a brown and gray coat that does not change color with the seasons. They often have a black spot between the ears and a black line on the edge of the ears.
The Fish and Game Department’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program has started a fundraising effort to support the restoration.
The population of the cottontails is now concentrated in five separate areas, including southern New Hampshire and along the New Hampshire and Maine coasts. Other current habitats are in southeastern Massachusetts and along Connecticut’s borders with New York and Rhode Island.
All six states are working to create additional habitat, but only New Hampshire and Maine feature the rabbit on their state lists of endangered species. The rabbit is extinct in Vermont. It is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The zoo currently has 23 cottontails what will produce offspring for 2013, said Louis Perrotti, director of conservation programs at the zoo. The group of nine rabbits is the first from the program to head to New Hampshire. There’s a similar pen in the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island. Some of those rabbits were transferred to Patience Island in Narragansett Bay.
It’s hoped the recovery plan will include the transfer of more cottontail’s to its range. "Right now, it’s just small steps," Perrotti said Tuesday. "As we do well at each step we just kind of magnify what we do and step it up. We breed more and then we have more release sites."