The School Board again voted down a memorandum of understanding with New Hampshire Fish and Game that would establish rabbit habitat on land behind the schools in the center of Town.
Wildlife biologist Heidi Holman and Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program Coordinator John Kanter told the Board projects such as the one they proposed for the District’s parcel are helping to keep the New England Cottontail off the State Endangered Species List.
But board members expressed concerns over the potential for the rabbits to carry fleas, ticks, and other illnesses, as well as for older trees that would be removed, and potential predators.
Ultimately, the Board voted against the rabbit habitat with a 2-3 vote. Chairman Steve Young and Leitha Reilly were the only members to support the project.
Kanter noted that in addition to creating new habitat for New England Cottontail, the project would serve as home to over 60 other species in greatest need of conservation.
With less than 100 New England Cottontail Rabbits in New Hampshire, Holman said the State’s goal is to create 2,000 acres of rabbit habitat by 2030.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Eversource Energy are funding up to $3 million for fish and wildlife conservation over the next three years in New Hampshire. Holman said the project would be funded through a variety of such grants.
Since 2009, the State has cleared and continues to maintain 1,000 acres of habitat, of which 125 acres are in Londonderry.
Such properties need to be connected to the power lines or within close proximity of one another to facilitate the rabbits’ natural dispersal, according to Holman.
School District Business Administrator Peter Curro said the District has no foreseeable use of the property, which is mostly wetlands.
“Even if we were to do anything with it, it would require a huge amount of mitigation and discussions with the Conservation Commission anyways,” he said. “(Facilities Director) Chuck (Zappala) and (Superintendent Nathan Greenberg) and I feel this is a win-win, acting as a natural buffer between us and any future development,” he said. “Most of this is either wet, or wet enough we wouldn’t be able to use it anyways. And it’s way back, not 20 to 30 feet from the fields, but a good distance back from the area.”
For those concerned with how the clearing would change the landscape, Holman said it’s possible they could leave 10 to 20 percent of canopy cover in the managed area.
And addressing members’ concerns over predators, Holman said they have implemented 1,000 acres of such projects and have no documented increase of predators as a result.
Predators that would potentially feed on the new rabbits include skunks, snakes, raccoons, wolves, hawks, foxes, coyotes, fisher cats, typical house cats and domestic dogs.
Additionally, there have been no documented cases of diseases harbored by an increase in rabbits – specifically, rabies.
“We have been selecting rabbits from across the range as part of the project, which have been quarantined and monitored. We found no reservoirs of diseases in populations,” Holman said. “Typically, disease occurs when there’s a severe overabundance of species, which is not what is happening with Cottontail in this region. Disease is a mechanism of control.”
“I’m afraid you haven’t brought me anything that makes me confident – if there’s even the slightest potential a predator could come in there, and these are fuzzy animals, they could carry lice, fleas, ticks, any of these things could increase and pose a potential problem for students that are there. I have to choose the students over the bunnies,” member Dan Lekas said.
“It’s not like you can throw a football and hit the property, it’s not right next to us,” Curro said, explaining the habitat would offer the added benefit of serving as a buffer between residential developments and school fields, blocking noise during practices and games.
“There were predators there before that area was managed and there are predators behind the school now. We’ve had no instances of anyone being attacked by hawks or foxes. We are the top predator. The only animals that pick on humans are usually diseased,” Conservation Commissioner Mike Speltz noted. “Here we are host of the largest population of New England Cottontail in the State and we have the opportunity to keep them. We have an enormous opportunity to show our kids what it means to take care of our common home and do some good conservation work.”
Additionally, the habitat could also offer learning opportunities for students through Fish and Game partners, such as New Hampshire Audubon, according to Kanter.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to have a project for species becoming more and more rare right here in Londonderry, and we’d love to share our results with teachers and students,” he said.
“We don’t have to operate in much doubt here,” Speltz said. “We have a pile of projects in Londonderry going on already – including a very similar project implemented in 2012 – that are doing marvelously well.”
Young asked if down the road, it would be possible to install a trail through the parcel, which students could use to walk to school from neighboring developments.
Kanter said there would be no reason for the rabbit habitat clearing to preclude trail construction.
Laferriere asked how long it would be before the first rabbits colonized the parcel after the initial clearing.
Holman said following initial implementation, it takes between five and 10 years for quality habitat to arrive on the landscape.
If connectivity were restricted and the parcel didn’t colonize naturally, Holman said through the State’s captive breeding program, they could release rabbits to the new habitat once it’s ready.
But ultimately, the Board voted against entering into the agreement with Fish and Game to create the rabbit habitat.
The Town Council, did however, recently approve a memorandum of agreement with Fish and Game to clear and manage a new, 80-acre habitat on town land.
The management would result in no cost to the town, and any income generated from timber harvesting would be returned to the Town.
Town Manager Kevin Smith has said such projects show a good faith effort on the part of the Town and the State to keep the animal off the Endangered Species List.