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The fox people care for a rabbit.

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The symbol of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is a reflection of its past. A tree perched on a rocky knoll and framed against a clear sky represents Mashantucket, the "much wooded land" where the people hunted and prospered. At its base, a fox stands as a vigilant reminder of the turbulent times when the Pequots adopted the name that means "The Fox People." Located in southeastern Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation is one of the oldest continuously occupied Indian reservations in North America.

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As part of a larger project examining the population status, habitat needs, and home ranges of significant predator and prey species in suburban Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequot Nation decided to evaluate the status and habitat use of the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) on tribal lands. Ultimately, the goal of this investigation was to determine if New England cottontails occurred on tribally owned properties. Funding from a 2003 Tribal Wildlife Grant enabled a tribally employed wildlife biologist to set 22 box traps to live-capture cottontails on tribal lands. Traps were set from January 1, 2005, through April 29, 2005, and again from December 20, 2005, through April 15, 2006, for a total of 4,641 trap-nights. The traps captured cottontails 42 times, including 17 recaptures.

It is nearly impossible to distinguish New England cottontails from eastern cottontails (S. fioridanus) simply by looking at them. The minor differences of ear length, body mass, and presence or absence of a black spot between the ears and a black line on the front of each ear are subtle enough to be missed and are not always accurate. Therefore, ear tissue samples were taken from all rabbits captured and were frozen for future DNA analysis. Measurements such as ear length, right hind foot length, and weight were taken from 23 captured individuals (15 males and 8 females). These 23 rabbits were also ear-tagged, sexed, and released. Two rabbits died during capture, likely because of below-average temperatures. One of the rabbits was captured three times in as many days and appeared to be in poor health.

Although the formula recommended by Litvaitis (2002) which takes into account ear and hind foot length, suggested that all captures were eastern cottontails, five rabbits from four unique sites had pelage characteristics representative of New England cottontails. Therefore, tissue samples from these five individuals were sent to the University of New Hampshire for DNA testing through a cooperative agreement with the State of Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection--Wildlife Division (CTDEP). Results received in 2006 were inconclusive for three of the samples, whereas the other two were confirmed eastern cottontails. Correspondence with the university stated that the three inconclusive samples were "most likely" New England cottontails, but because the analysis did not yield clean sequences, these results are not definitive.

The Pequot Tribe is sharing information from this study with CTDEP, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the public. Articles published in January and November 2005 editions of the tribal newspaper, The Pequot Times, described this cottontail research to the public. (See http://www.pequottimes.com/ archives.php.)

In 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service identified the New England cottontail as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Why would a rabbit, the embodiment of prolific breeding, be considered for protection? The reasons are a severe reduction in range and numbers. As recently as 1960, New England cottontails were found east of the Hudson River in New York, across all of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, and north into New Hampshire and southern Vermont and Maine. But this species' range has shrunk by more than 75 percent, and its population numbers are declining. It can no longer be found in Vermont and has been reduced to only five smaller populations throughout the rest of its historical range. We hope that the data collected by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation will determine if New England cottontails inhabit tribal lands so that we can better protect their habitiat.

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Reference

Litvaitis, J.A., B. Johnson, A.I. Kovach, and R. Jenkins. 2002. Manual of sampling protocols for a regional inventory of New England cottontails. Durham, N. H. 53pp.

Shelley Spohr is the wildlife biologist for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Sarah Rinkevich is an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its Southwest Region.
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Title Annotation:Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation
Author:Spohr, Shelley; Rinkevich, Sarah E.
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
Words:730
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