New England acts to save cottontail rabbit

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The New England cottontail was once so common that Massachusetts author Thornton Burgess adapted one for the children's stories he penned a century ago.

But the critter that inspired "The Adventures of Peter Cottontail" and the enduring song that came later faces an uncertain future. Its natural habitat is disappearing, and without help it could be unhappy trails for the once-bountiful bunny.

Conservationists are hoping a new program to restore shrub lands across the Northeast and captive breeding efforts will help ensure the New England cottontail sticks around for many Easters to come.

"We're making headway, putting habitat on the ground in some really key places," said Anthony Tur, an endangered-species specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's encouraging."

New England cottontails had thrived in an environment of shrubs, saplings, weeds and vines known as young forest. But in an uncommon turn of events, declining human activity is to blame for its lost habitat -- not urban sprawl.

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As neglected agricultural lands reverted back to forest and those forests matured, the population of New England cottontails thinned. More than 80 percent of their habitat disappeared over the past 50 years, according to the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute.

The New England cottontail is the only rabbit species native to the region east of the Hudson River.

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