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New National Wildlife Refuge to Protect Northeast Shrubland

The rare New England cottontail rabbit and other shrubland species are getting some new help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency is targeting 15,000 acres of land in six northeastern states, including Maine, to be included in a new Great Thickets National Wildlife Refuge.

It has been almost 15 years since environmentalists and others noticed a decline in the shrub-loving New England cottontail. Since then, a growing, multistate conservation effort has attempted to prevent further decline.

The effort has shown some success in identifying and preserving rabbit habitat, and last year the federal government decided against listing the rabbits as an endangered or threatened species. They thrive in young forests, and now the Fish and Wildlife Service says it will dedicate as much as $130 million, over time, to acquire land or easements in five of the six New England states, plus New York, to expand protected habitats by some 15,000 acres.

“The Great Thickets Project really started as all great projects do — pretty much at the grassroots level,” says Scott Kahan, the agency’s chief of refuges for the Northeast.

Kahan says the scope of the effort to “move the needle,” as he puts it — which includes a broad array of government agencies, conservation groups and lands in six states — is unique.

“When we think about providing habitat for wildlife, we really need to think about it in terms of these bigger geographies, in terms of where that habitat needs to be located to help protect and to keep some of these common species common and to help recover some of the ones that are more rare,” he says.

Threatened and endangered species that will also benefit include bog turtles and the Massachusetts population of red-bellied cooters.

The project is targeting 2,800 acres in southern Maine for acquisition or easements in the York-Berwick area and around Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough. FWS does allow, on a case-by-case basis, many traditional uses in its refuges, which can include hunting and snowmobiling.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.