Bramble On: Citizen Scientists Rock Research for Rabbits

New England cottontail conservation effort brings UNH researchers and citizen scientists together

Stonyfield Farm is home to more than an iconic New Hampshire brand. The shrublands surrounding the company’s Londonderry headquarters are home to a measurable population of the state-endangered New England Cottontail. On Dec. 15, a group of volunteer citizen scientists gathered at the facility to learn and practice data collection methods to support University of New Hampshire research.

New England cottontails have been the subject of restoration efforts in the state since 2008. Habitat creation and restoration, captive breeding and reintroduction are all strategies being deployed to reinvigorate our only native rabbit species. To date, more than 1,200 acres of public and private land in New Hampshire have been managed or maintained for New England cottontail habitat. One very important component of these efforts has been missing, though.

“Currently, no mechanism is in place to demonstrate the success of habitat management efforts,” says Melissa Bauer, a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at UNH.

Bauer teamed up with Haley Andreozzi, UNH Cooperative Extension’s wildlife outreach program coordinator, to design a training and protocol for citizen scientists to contribute to their research. “Data collected by citizen scientists will help us understand how cottontail populations have responded to prior management and what management could increase abundance to recover cottontail populations,” says Bauer.

Habitat is critical to the success of New England cottontails. Dense, shrubby vegetation is required for this species to thrive. Understanding the quality of habitat through a broader geographical region will enrich the data already being collected. This is where citizen scientists are not only helpful, but crucial. It would be impossible for Bauer and her team to cover each of the sites, 15 of them spread out across southern New Hampshire, before leaves return in the spring. Dense, brushy shrubs are challenging enough to get through without leaves, so it is important that this data be collected between January and April.

After a presentation about the New England cottontail and an overview of the ongoing research, volunteers were instructed in the use of a mapping application called Avenza Maps. This tool allows Andreozzi and Bauer to direct volunteers to randomly assigned points within habitat sites.

“This is a crucial part of the protocol,” Andreozzi says. “The terrain can be difficult to navigate, so removing our own bias of avoidance is important to the integrity of the data being collected.” Each volunteer signed up for a parcel of conservation land to survey this winter. Once volunteers reach their assigned points, they will collect information about understory density, height, canopy cover, refuges (such as brushpiles) and predator perches. They will then report back to Bauer and Andreozzi with the data.

“It has been great to work with enthusiastic citizen scientists,” says Bauer. “They will be collecting valuable data to help us better understand and conserve populations of a rare wildlife species.”

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