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March Sneak Peek

Boondoggle or Bona Fide? A Question on the Appalachian Cottontail

By John Gibble

Those of us born in the 1960s and 70s were the children that were going to save the planet. In school, we were versed in conservation of resources, promoting clean water, preserving forests, and reducing air pollution. We remember the pesticide, DDT and the effects it had on eagles and ospreys. Forty years later we are now celebrating the de-listing of the bald eagle from the Endangered Species list. We have a Clean Water Act, a Clean Air Act, recycling, and numerous environmental programs that promote conservation of the land, water, and air. Some of these programs have been unqualified successes; other programs might cause a thinking person some questions.

The Endangered Species Act is one of those programs that is often questioned, as well as state programs that mirror the Act on a smaller scale. Here in the eastern U.S., from New York’s Hudson Valley, south through the Appalachians into Alabama, state wildlife agencies, prompted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several international watch groups are asking questions and making assumptions about the range and abundance of the Appalachian cottontail, Sylvilagus obscurus. Unlike the plentiful Eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus, the Appalachian cottontail is limited to high elevations with coniferous and heath (laurel, rhododendron, blueberry) habitats. It is found in forest openings and clear-cuts and old growth forest with sufficient ground cover.

Pennsylvania’s State Wildlife Action Plan assigns the Appalachian cottontail a priority status, “high level of concern”. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists it as “near threatened”. Most states within the range of the Appalachian cottontail are now investigating the populations and requirements for the species within their boundaries and developing action plans to save the species. Major threats to the Appalachian cottontail are reported to be habitat fragmentation and maturation of forests, proliferation of invasive plant species, and encroachment by the larger Eastern cottontail. A Species Survival Commission stated one threat could be indiscriminate hunting resulting from lack of knowledge by sportsmen. The South Carolina Wildlife Conservation Service suggested that “Hunting is not known to adversely affect the species in South Carolina; however pregnant and lactating rabbits have been captured in February before the end of hunting season.” Several sources added that the release of Eastern cottontails into the habitat of Appalachian cottontails remains a threat of undetermined proportion. It is likely in coming years we will see states list the Appalachian cottontail as threatened or endangered. Depending on the results of current population surveys, we may even see the species listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The remainder of this article can be read starting on page 24 of our March issue.