IFW Proposes Rule Change in Rabbit Hunting Regulations

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The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife is proposing changes in "rabbit" hunting regulations. Beginning in 2004, the department is proposing that the season on New England cottontails in Maine be closed; there would be no changes to the snowshoe hare hunting season or bag limit.

An informational meeting about this change will be held in the conference room at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife's Gray Headquarters at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 22. The Headquarters is located on Route 26, approximately 3.5 miles north of Gray.

New England cottontail (NEC) populations have greatly declined throughout their range in New England and eastern New York. In fact, they are currently being considered for federal listing as a Threatened or Endangered Species.

In Maine, the NEC was once reported as far north as a line running through Fryeburg, Lewiston, and Belfast. They now occupy only about 17% of their former range. In the last few years, intensive searches for the NEC have located signs of the animals in only 53 patches within 19 towns.

New England Cottontails are habitat specialists; they live in brushy, scrubby areas that grow up when farmland is abandoned or following a fire, forest cutting, or other disturbance. This type of habitat is short lived; it soon matures into a forest that does not offer sufficient cover.

This type of habitat has become rare throughout the northeast, and most of the remaining habitat consists of very small, disjunct patches. This creates several problems.

A very small patch is unlikely to sustain a population, because cottontails living there are vulnerable to predation and other events. Movements of cottontails to recolonize a habitat patch, or colonize a new one, are hazardous, because they must often cross highways and traverse large areas without protective cover.

Although the major cause of the decline in cottontails is loss of habitat, we are proposing to curtail hunting of the NEC to reduce the likelihood of losing isolated populations or reducing colonization. The following is a brief summary of recent and proposed changes.

From 1972 to 1998, the hare and rabbit season was 6 months long, with a daily bag limit of 4, made up of any combination of snowshoe hare and cottontail rabbits.

Beginning in 1999, the daily bag limit remained 4 hares and rabbits in total, but only 1 could be a cottontail. Under this proposal, the snowshoe hare season will still be 6 months long and the bag limit for hares will remain at four.