Nature Lab

By Bonnie Chasteen | March 1, 2021
From Missouri Conservationist: March 2021
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Cottontail Management | Grasslands and Eastern Cottontails

Can restoring native grasslands help eastern cottontails? Researchers from MDC and the University of Central Missouri (UCM) have been exploring that question on Schell-Osage and Linscomb conservation areas in southwest Missouri.

“We know restoring native grassland habitat benefits many wildlife species, improves soil health, and provides excellent forage for livestock,” said MDC Small Game Coordinator David Hoover.

“We assume it benefits cottontail rabbits, but this study will provide hard data,” he said.

UCM Assistant Professor Daniel Wolcott added that the study is about “determining those elements of native grassland habitat that rabbit populations respond most positively to.”

The mark-recapture study started in 2016, and the research team used baited live traps during 14-day trapping periods each spring and fall. The team collected demographic data (age, sex, etc.) on all cap-tured rabbits and gave each one a uniquely numbered ear tag. “This helped us assess rabbits’ movements after recapture,” said UCM graduate research assistant Dottie Stimac.

Stimac and her team began the study’s vegetation data collection in 2019. “By monitoring the vegetation at each trap site, we quantified the habitat characteristics most favorable to rabbits,” she said. Stimac said that although the results are preliminary, there was a positive relationship between wildflower cov-er and rabbit occurrence.

“The preliminary results of this study mirror similar studies of bobwhite quail, grassland songbirds, and native insects.” Hoover said. “These showed that providing diverse native grassland habitat, both from a structural and number of species standpoint, is critically important.”

“Being able to quantify wildlife responses to specific management activities and landscape features will allow managers to better plan and evaluate their management actions,” Stimac added.

Southwest Cottontail Study at a Glance

Research Partner

University of Central Missouri

Purpose

Determine the native grassland elements that cottontail rabbits favor

Methods
  • Mark-recapture from 2016–2019
  • Vegetation data collection during 2019 trapping season
296 Captures of 229 Rabbits
  • 2016: 76 captures of 59 individuals
  • 2017: 68 captures of 48 individuals
  • 2018: 75 captures of 62 individuals
  • 2019: 77 captures of 60 individuals
Preliminary Results
  • More rabbits were captured in areas with wildflowers
  • Fewer rabbits were captured in areas with increasing grass cover
Management Indication
  • Cottontails favor diverse grassland habitat

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler