Dangerous Misperceptions: Eastern Cottontail Survival in an Agroecosystem

Julie Nawrocki, Robert L. Schooley, Michael P. Ward

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Intensive agricultural practices often have negative impacts on local wildlife populations. In attempts to alleviate these effects, habitat restoration programs such as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) have been established. One species that could benefit from restored grassland habitat created by these programs is the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). In Illinois, populations have undergone a substantial decline over time, especially in the most agriculturally intense regions. To understand how mortality risk and perceived predation risk for eastern cottontails varies within an agroecosystem, we examined survival rates and perceived risk in restored grassland habitats and the surrounding agricultural fields. From June 2014 through June 2016, we radio-collared 95 eastern cottontails with VHF transmitters and tracked their movements year-round until the collar failed or mortality occurred. We then constructed known-fate models in program MARK to determine how survival rates vary across habitats and seasons. To determine if habitats differed in perceived risk for cottontails, we conducted giving-up density (GUD) experiments in grassland and agricultural fields. During the summer when crops (corn and soybean) were present on the landscape, mortalities occurred disproportionately in agricultural fields relative to grassland areas. However, the GUD experiments indicated that cottontails perceived these same agricultural fields to be less risky than the grassland areas. This mismatch suggests that cottontails may be incorrectly assessing the risks of these habitats and that agricultural fields may be acting as ecological traps lowering the potential benefits of restored grassland areas. Our results can be used to inform selection of future SAFE sites, by considering landscape context, to more effectively manage eastern cottontail populations and other species that may be experiencing similar circumstances.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPrivate Landscapes, Public Responsibilities: 77th Midwest Fish & Wildlife Conference, February 5-7, 2017, Lincoln, Nebraska
StatePublished - 2017


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