With three members present, the School Board voted down a memorandum of understanding with the New Hampshire Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish rabbit habitat on School District property.
Only Chairman Steve Young voted in support of the agreement to complete the timber harvest within the two parcels behind the middle school and high school, strategically located near a clearing for rabbits in the Musquash conservation area.
In April, the Conservation Commission voted 7-0 to recommend the Town Manager approve a memorandum of understanding with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department for habitat management of town-owned parcels, three of which belong to the School District.
Fish and Game Wildlife Biologist Mike Marchand said creating new rabbit habitat in the vicinity of the power lines in town will help protect the endangered Eastern Cottontail, as well as many other species that prefer dense shrublands.
With less than 100 New England Cottontail Rabbits in New Hampshire, the State has committed to creating 1,200 acres of rabbit habitat in the southern part of the State, along the power lines, according to University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Field Specialist Emma Carcagno.
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.
“In New England, the Eastern Cottontail have been declining for many years. The decline is largely associated with declining shrubland habitat,” said Marchand, explaining Fish and Game has been working with the Town and other State agencies and non-profit organizations to manage the rabbit habitat. “Londonderry is in the center of one of two major focal areas remaining for the species.”
Marchand noted Fish and Game sees a great opportunity for partnerships on school backyard projects with the location of new habitat directly behind the schools.
“This is an area we really have no use for. There are no plans for fields or any other development because the area is too wet,” said Peter Curro, explaining the District’s support for the proposal.
In addition to creating suitable habitat for an endangered species, Curro said the project would also establish a suitable buffer between the schools and residential neighbors.
“I don’t understand why we need to clear trees just for the rabbits when just to the north there are endless miles of power lines,” member John Laferriere said.
Conservation Commissioner Deb Lievens explained the power lines serve as a suitable means of traveling for the bunnies, but they also need areas that provide adequate cover from predators.
Marchand noted the power lines are maintained regularly, which means patches of suitable habitat are always changing along the lines, and cottontail thrive in shrubby areas a minimum of 10 acres in size, such as the patch the Town cut in partnership with the State in the Musquash in 2013.
“Going back to natural disturbances of the landscapes, like flooding and fires, this habitat would go up, return to forest and all this shrub habitat would be available to animals,” Lievens said. “But now, we’re building and suppressing fires and the habitat is reduced. A number of birds – meadowlarks, towhees – used to have higher populations. They also appreciate that shrubby habitat.”
Laferriere also expressed concern that creating the habitat for rabbits could bring diseases like rabies into the area and increase the number of predatory animals like coyotes and foxes.
Lievens said there are so few Cottontail in the state at this time, they would be happy to see even just 100 new rabbits in the area.
But in regard to whether or not rabbits will increase the number of predatory animals in the area, she’s not sure of the answer to that question.
“There are mosquitoes all over the place back there, and there’s a tick problem. I’m trying to understand the urgency of protecting the rabbit,” Laferriere said.
“The urgency for us is the rabbit is declining every year. Its global existence is threatened, and this is one of the last remaining strongholds for the species. Even this year we are losing populations,” said Marchand, noting he is not aware of any unique diseases for rabbits.
Marchand explained that any mammal can carry rabies, but the most common species are skunks, raccoons and bats.
“I’m not aware of any with rabbits, but any mammal can carry rabies,” he said.
Young expressed concern that establishing the rabbit habitat could potentially cause problems for the District in maintaining their fields in the future, asking, if the endangered population begins to thrive in the new habitat, whether the State would try to prevent the District from fertilizing and watering their fields, when the runoff flows to the parcels at the rear of the property.
Marchand said the habitat is only going to be in an ideal state for a period of time, and that if partners decide they don’t want to manage the property anymore, it won’t be a habitat for the species.
“I believe your real challenge will be neighborhoods to the southwest of the property,” Young said. “When those people find out all those trees are getting cut down in their backyard, they probably won’t be too happy.”
Lievens said the timber harvest would include strategically placed buffers to minimize impacts to abutters.
Laferriere and Dan Lekas said they didn’t think their questions about an increase in disease and predatory animals as a result of the rabbit habitat were adequately answered, and Lievens and Marchand plan to return with more information to share with the Board.