Saturday, January 16, 2016

New England Cottontail Rabbits

Note: This program first aired on January 16, 2016.

Join me in a thought exercise for a moment. Think of the most beautiful landscape you can imagine, one worthy of protection in perpetuity, one that meets all of our emotional, physical and spiritual needs. You may have conjured up an image of a mountain with a waterfall, a babbling brook, an open forest. Maybe a woodland or grassy savannah with a view from a high point. There are endless possibilities. One image I can almost guarantee you did not picture is a low shrub thicket tangled with thorny brambles and vines, with 20,000 to 50,000 stems per acre, virtually impossible for a human to walk through. But if you were a New England Cottontail Rabbit, this is exactly the landscape you would be imagining.

New England Cottontails are Maine’s only true rabbit, and Maine’s only state listed Endangered terrestrial mammal (the Snowshoe hares who’s tracks we see everywhere in the winter are different). Historically these rabbits lived throughout New England from just west of Penobscot Bay all they way to the Hudson River, down to Long Island. New England Cottontails became an Endangered species in Maine (and qualify for various levels of protection in the rest of New England) for one big reason, habitat loss. Since 1960 habitat for New England Cottontails has declined over 80% across its range. All animals are dependent on the environment to provide for their physical needs, habitat provides shelter from the elements, protection from predators and a supply of food. New England Cottontails are specialists when it comes to habitat requirements, they are adapted to be need very specific attributes in the places they call home. And those attributes include dense vegetative cover composed primarily of woody shrubs and small deciduous trees 3 to 15 feet tall, in patches of 10 to 25 acres. Size and structure.

The problem is that we don’t have very many stable shrublands here in New England, meaning, shrubs generally aren’t a climax vegetative community. These thickets primarily form as a result of landscape disturbance, they are what is called in ecological terms “early successional”. After a forest clearing disturbance the first plants to come in and colonize the disturbed area tend to make a dense thicket of herbaceous material, shrubs and sapling trees. This community only lasts 20 years at most before the tree saplings grow tall enough to shade out the understory, which opens up the thicket and degrades the habitat for the New England Cottontails. Which means, in essence, New England Cottontail rabbits are a disturbance dependent species.

The reason that they are now in decline is that we humans don’t like disturbance very much, nor do we appreciate landscapes that change over time. New England Cottontail rabbits got a temporary boost when agriculture declined in Maine, and thousands of acres of fields transitioned from open hay or cultivation back to forest. Initially the regrowing fields provided perfect thicket habitat, but then ecological succession continued, and the thickets were replaced by young forest. Additionally, we actively suppress fires, cut dead wood and otherwise manage forests to minimize disturbance and maximize the development of multi age climax forest stands. Essentially we do everything we can to prevent the kind of disturbance that will create new habitat for the New England Cottontail; we fanatically mow to keep open land open, and actively encourage the development of forests, dismissing all the messy swampy shrubby stuff that comes inbetween. We are effectively holding the landscape static, when static is exactly what natural landscapes are not. In doing so, we have a significant negative impact on organisms that are dependent on this ephemeral natural community; the New England Cottontail may be the most charismatic of the bunch, but over 100 other species of special concern share the same habitat requirements, suffer the same declines at the loss of habitat, and enjoy the same benefits of active habitat restoration.

Restorative action is taking place in all of the 5 remnant populations remaining in the rabbits’ historic range. Landowners are working with state and federal officials, doing things that seemed unimaginable to the conservation minded citizen years ago, clear cutting small tracts of forest, mimicking the natural small scale disturbance caused by low intensity fires, beaver flooding and wind storms, allowing patches of early successional habitat to flourish. This is truly “next level” conservation, working with natural patterns over both time and space to create a dynamic long range management plan that honors all species, not just the climax community ones. Sometimes it just takes a cute little bunny to get us there.

From US Fish and Wildlife Service


Federal US Fish and Wildlife  

Learn everything you wanted to know about New England Cottontail Rabbits:

Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife:



Saturday, January 9, 2016

Wilderness isn't wild, its bewildering

Note: This program first aired January 9, 2016.
If you ask some one on the street to define wilderness, chances are good they will describe a natural setting, a place with no human influence or impact, somewhere very much in place and time.  The dictionary gives us much the same:

1. a wild and uncultivated region, as of forest or desert, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; a tract of wasteland.
2. a tract of land officially designated as such and protected by the U.S. government.
3. any desolate tract, as of open sea.
4. a part of a garden set apart for plants growing with unchecked luxuriance.
5. a bewildering mass or collection. “

We could push our person on the street deeper, and perhaps get to a definition of wilderness that includes places like the ocean, the 70% of Earth surface upon which we pursue the last commercial wild prey, and under which we have not yet meaningfully colonized. Push a little further and we might even get to the idea that outer space is the ultimate wilderness. Our definition of wilderness begins with the root word “wild” which the dictionary defines primarily by what it is not: untamed, undomesticated, uncultivated, uninhabited, uncivilized, unrestrained, uncontrolled. These words all apply to the places we think of as wild, be they officially designated wilderness areas, the open ocean, or the blank spots on the map. Twenty seven years ago Bill McKibben first published The End of Nature, a work that posits among other things that as we define nature (or wilderness) as a place beyond the reach of human impact and influence, nature or wilderness can no longer exist, because human impact is now completely global in a geographic sense due to anthropogenic climate change and the pervasive spread of air and water born pollution. In short, our finger prints are everywhere. I made the same point myself back in college, before I’d ever heard of Bill McKibben.

But what if we change our perspective and look at one of the other words used in the definition of wilderness. What if we use bewilderment as the central concept of what makes something wild?

The dictionary defines Bewilder as:
1 :  to cause to lose one's bearings
2 :  to perplex or confuse especially by a complexity, variety, or multitude of objects or considerations

That sort of sounds a lot like nature doesn’t it? Complex beyond our typical understanding, easy to get lost in. Humans are excellent at pattern recognition, our evolutionary survival has depended on it. From this angle, careful study of natural events and patterns meant that we were never in the wilderness, even though from our casual modern viewpoint, humans living a premodern life seem to be the epitome of uncultivated and undomesticated. They may have been uncivilized, but they were not bewildered.

Looking for and identifying patterns allows us to make predictions. Being able to predict how things will be gives us a sense of comfort (though in modern times we sometimes confuse comfort with control). If we take bewildering as the defining character of wilderness, wilderness occurs beyond prediction. Wilderness is found  when things don’t fit the pattern. It is bewildering when it is 70 degrees on Christmas day in southern New England. It is bewildering when a 500 year flood comes in the middle of winter, only 23 years after the last 500 year flood. It is bewildering when there is no ice on the shore to protect your village from winter storms. It is bewildering to see a bird or fish or plant you’ve never seen before suddenly appear in your home terrain. Wilderness isn’t a place, its something that happens when you don’t know what’s going to happen.

We live in the wilderness, now more so than our Neolithic ancestors ever did. Rather than the end of wilderness, we are living a broad bewildering version of it, covered with our dirty fingerprints.