Context. Designing effective long-term monitoring strategies is essential for managing wildlife populations. Implementing a cost-effective, practical monitoring program is especially challenging for widespread but locally rare species. Early successional habitat preferred by the New England cottontail (NEC) has become increasingly rare and fragmented, resulting in substantial declines from their peak distribution in the mid-1900s. The introduction of a possible competitor species, the eastern cottontail (EC), may also have played a role. Uncertainty surrounding how these factors have contributed to NEC declines has complicated management and necessitated development of an appropriate monitoring framework to understand possible drivers of distribution and dynamics.
Aims. Because estimating species abundance is costly, we designed presence–absence surveys to estimate species distributions, test assumptions about competitive interactions, and improve understanding of demographic processes for eastern cottontails (EC) and New England cottontails (NEC). The survey protocol aimed to balance long-term management objectives with practical considerations associated with monitoring a widespread but uncommon species. Modelling data arising from these observations allow for estimation of covariate relationships between species status and environmental conditions including habitat and competition. The framework also allows inference about species status at unsurveyed locations.
Methods. We designed a monitoring protocol to collect data across six north-eastern USA states and, using data collected from the first year of monitoring, fit a suite of single-season occupancy models to assess how abiotic and biotic factors influence NEC occurrence, correcting for imperfect detectability.
Key results. Models did not provide substantial support for competitive interactions between EC and NEC. NEC occurrence patterns appear to be influenced by several remotely sensed habitat covariates (land-cover classes), a habitat-suitability index, and, to a lesser degree, plot-level habitat covariates (understorey density and canopy cover).
Conclusions. We recommend continuing presence–absence monitoring and the development of dynamic occupancy models to provide further evidence regarding hypotheses of competitive interactions and habitat influences on the underlying dynamics of NEC occupancy.
Implications. State and federal agencies responsible for conserving this and other threatened species can engage with researchers in thoughtful discussions, based on management objectives, regarding appropriate monitoring design to ensure that the allocation of monitoring efforts provides useful inference on population drivers to inform management intervention.