So long “Rattlesnake Island” (we hardly knew ye); hello Rabbit Island.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is executing a plan to make Nomans Land Island a refuge for New England cottontails, as part of a larger effort to rebuild the species’ population. According to the Cape Cod Times, officials ferried the first 13 cottontails Tuesday to the 628-acre island, located three miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard.
Unfortunately for rabbit enthusiasts, Nomans Land Island and its surrounding waters remain closed to the public — but for good reason.
In the 1940s, the Navy began leasing the entire island to use for aerial bombing practice. This went on for more than 50 years. And officials say the scenic, shrub-covered island remains dangerously littered with unexploded bombs.
But don’t worry, the cottontails will probably be OK.
Meagan Racey, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which took over management of the island in 1998 (the Navy stopped using it as a bombing range in 1996), says the small mammals should be able to safely coexist with the island’s undetonated explosives.
“We considered and analyzed this when we did an environmental assessment on the proposed project (for releasing the rabbits), and believe the rabbits are too light in weight to set anything off,” Racey told Boston.com in an email.
The small mammals weigh only two to three pounds.
Additionally, Racey says that the Navy informed them that “most of the munitions are dummies.” So far, she said there’s no evidence of any other wildlife encountering or setting off ordnance on the island. While Nomans Land does not have any larger mammals, it does support many migratory bird species, including the peregrine falcon.
Officials say the remote island should be able to support at least 600 cottontails. According to an environmental assessment released by the service last November, their goal is for the population to reach at least 500. The same assessment notes that, due to all the unexploded bombs, removing cottontails from the island could be difficult, if they somehow become overpopulated.
But right now overpopulation is not a concern.
While New England cottontails are not a federally endangered species, officials say their population has “dwindled” due to habitat loss. The rabbits depend on dense thickets associated with young forests, shrublands, and coastal barrens for protection. And, as forests matured and their habitats were cleared for development, the New England cottontail’s range has plummeted by more than 80 percent since 1960, according to the service.
The population also has had to compete for resources with the nonnative (and nearly identical) eastern cottontail, which replaced the New England cottontail as the region’s most abundant rabbit in the mid-1900s.
According to the service, the New England cottontail now only lives in southern Maine, southern New Hampshire, and parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York east of the Hudson River.
The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife captured the 13 New England cottontails — five females and eight males — on the mainland last winter. And after being cared for by students at Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, the group was brought out to Nomans Land in wooden boxes and released by service workers Tuesday.
Without any human development, mammalian predators (predation by birds is expected to be “low“), or competing eastern cottontails, officials hope the island’s new rabbit population should be able to thrive.
“They look like they are at home,” Eileen McGourty, a biologist with the service who helped deliver the rabbits to the island Tuesday, told the Cape Cod Times.