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On Nomans Land Island, Scientists Hope Cottontail Bunnies Will Thrive

NOMANS LAND ISLAND (CBS) - From bombs to bunnies. That's what's happening on an uninhabited island off the coast of Martha's Vineyard once used by the Navy for target practice. The goal is to bring back the one rabbit species that's native to New England. It's called Nomans Land Island, and scientists have just relocated 13 New England cottontails there. And we're the only television station that went on the expedition.

It's the first sunny day of a rainy spring, and a group of scientists and journalists meet in Falmouth, gear up with life jackets and waders, and get ready to board a boat with precious cargo.

Scientists move cottontails to Nomans Land Island. (WBZ-TV)

"We'll take the rabbits from the truck here and move them out to the boat," said Eileen McGourty, the lead biologist for the project from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The rabbits are New England cottontails, the only species native to our area, a species that has been in serious decline. This mission seeks to change that. It's a project headed by U.S Fish and Wildlife with Mass. Wildlife lending a hand. Everything is ready, lines are released and we shove off.

"It's been a lot of years in the works, and to have this day finally come, it's really exciting," McGourty said.

It's about an hour's ride to Nomans Island. As the name says, no people here, but plenty of seals greet us as we approach. The landing ramp drops and rabbits, people and gear are brought ashore. Then, a brief warning.

"If you see something that's metal looking, don't touch it, don't kick it," said one of the scientists.

That's because this 628-acre island was once used for target practice and there are unexploded bombs here. But the area of the beach where we are is clear, and so are the trails we hike to get to the rabbit release point.

Then the moment of truth, as the first box containing the rabbits is opened. The first one is out and gone. A dozen more follow. Some bolt, some are hesitant, but they all make it.

A New England Cottontail released on Nomans Land Island. (WBZ-TV)

"It was amazing to see those rabbits get released onto the island," McGourty said with a smile.

She said the decline in the New England cottontail population is mostly due to lost habitat because this species needs a particular home. "They really like shrubby habitat." Which is exactly what the island offers. And the rabbits have no predators here. "Nomans Land is thought to be able to support approximately 500 to 600 rabbits," said McGourty.

John Garofoli from Mass. Wildlife trapped the rabbits for the release.

"Not every day do you get to participate in something that you're introducing a species back to an area where it hasn't been for a long time," he said.

The hope is these bunnies will breed like rabbits.

"If the project is successful there's the potential that we can take rabbits from this island to augment mainland sites," McGourty explained.

They assure us that the rabbits don't have anything to fear from unexploded bombs on Nomans. They're too light to trigger them The scientists will track the rabbits with GPS and plan to continue releasing them onto the island to create a healthy colony.

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