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Stone Bridge Preserve: Conservation Project Creates New England Cottontail Habitat

Published: September 15, 2017

In light of its goal to provide diversity in natural habitats, the Conservation Commission on September 8 provided the public with a view of the markedly changed landscape at sections of the town’s Stone Bridge Preserve, where extensive recent tree cutting has created habitat suitable for the New England cottontail rabbit to thrive.

According to the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), the New England cottontail is Connecticut’s only native rabbit, and differs from the Eastern cottontail, which is “now the predominant species.” Also, “New England cottontails require large patches of shrubland or young forest, often called thickets, with dense, tangled vegetation.” The New England cottontail has been designated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as “a candidate for threatened or endangered status,” since 2006.

The open space land where the tree cutting occurred lies along Stone Bridge Trail, a narrow dirt road that extends northward from Berkshire Road (Route 34), just south of Nighthawk Lane. The area is adjacent to the Iroquois Gas Transmission System’s cross-country pipeline.

The tree cutting in the heavily canopied forest created a young forest and shrublands known as “early successional habitat.”

As people toured the rolling terrain where hundreds of mature trees have been cut, they remarked that the tree trunks that lay chockablock across the ground reminded them of the damage that is done by hurricanes.
Actually, after loggers cut the trees last winter, they left the tree trunks in piles scattered across the site to deter deer from walking there. The presence of deer damages the new shrubland habitat for the New England cottontail. The habitat that was created also is expected to benefit more than 50 other species.

Forester Jeremy Clark, who served as the project manager for the Conservation Commission, provided a tour of the area. Iroquois provided grant funds for a forest management plan that preceded the habitat project.

Mr Clark said that some “seed trees” were left standing after the cutting to provide seed for new trees to grow in the area.

Lisa Wahle, a biologist who worked on the habitat project, said that the area will be scientifically monitored to gauge the extent to which New England cottontail rabbits have populated the area.

Of the habitat project, the Conservation Commission states on its website, “Newtown is committed to providing diverse habitat on appropriate open space properties that will provide, shelter, food, and protection for threatened wildlife that, without intervention, may become extinct.”

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