Habitat Management to Reduce Competitive Interactions: Case Study of Native and Invading Cottontails

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Habitat management recommendations are often based on best available science determined through retroductive and inductive hypotheses. Such recommendations are not frequently tested, potentially resulting in the implementation of unreliable practices for management of imperiled species. The New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) is an imperiled shrubland‐obligate species whose recovery efforts include habitat management and restoration. Researchers suggest former best management practices for the species may result in ecological traps and new recommendations have been developed. We evaluated these newly revised best management practices designed to retain higher tree canopy closure to promote New England cottontails without encouraging eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus). We compared New England and eastern cottontail density between management plots (tree canopy thinned with all downed trees left on the ground, with or without invasive shrub treatment) and control plots (unmanaged) and examined the influence of management on resource selection and survival. Management strategies retaining higher canopy closure promoted stronger selection by New England cottontails than by eastern cottontails. Catch per unit effort of New England cottontails was greater than for eastern cottontails in management plots (P = 0.002). For both species, the proportion of the 95% home range overlapping managed areas was greater than the proportion of managed area in the habitat patch; however, for the 50% core area of the home range, this was only true for New England cottontails. When post‐treatment canopy cover was >75%, New England cottontails selected canopy‐thinning treatments without invasive shrub removal over unmanaged areas, but selection by eastern cottontails was unaffected by management treatment or canopy cover. Survival probability of both species was high and uncorrelated with time spent in management areas. Survival probability decreased as the average distance a rabbit moved in a 7‐day period increased. Our results illustrate the need to revise management strategies that emphasize eliminating canopy cover when improving New England cottontail habitat is an objective, particularly where they are sympatric with eastern cottontails.

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