A decidedly northern species, the snowshoe hare exists throughout much of Canada and into Alaska. They actually reach the southern edge of their range in Wisconsin.
Still, the woods and swamps of our Northwoods once teemed with the rodent known for its large, well-furred feet – feet that allow it to run atop soft snow without sinking. Now, many are wondering where the snowshoe hare has gone.
Retired guide, outdoor columnist and long-time hunter of the snowshoe hare, Buckshot Anderson of St. Germain, said populations seemed to suddenly plummet a couple of decades ago. The decline seemed to coincide with rise in the population of a certain large member of the weasel family.
“I noticed a drastic reduction in snowshoes when ... the fishers really started to take hold here. In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, I guess it was,” Anderson said. “It was pretty evident what they were doing. They were in the swamps and in the thickets, the regrowth popple. Sometimes there were more fisher tracks in there than there were snowshoe tracks.”
Anderson related an interesting observation, made during deer season while he was on stand around the late 1980s or early 1990s, when the fisher population was high.
“A snowshoe came flying by, and a fisher, 20 seconds behind him on the trail. The fisher was puffing. The fisher stopped and another fisher came along and took up the trail and [the first one] took a little rest and then took off. It was like a pair of them were working the rabbit together.”
Anderson noted that snowshoe hares will circle when pursued.
“Maybe one rests and waits until it comes by again, like they work in teams. I thought that was kind of unique. I talked to one other hunter that said he’s seen the same thing.”
But now, those fishers seem to be just one part of the problem.
“Now the fisher have tapered off in their numbers,” Anderson said. “Still, we don’t seem to be making any headway in getting the rabbits back.”
The forest of his younger years was different than today’s, Anderson noted.
“When I was a teenager, and before, all these black spruce and tamarack and balsam swamps – the stuff in there was pretty little yet,” he said. “It was immature and there were a lot of thickets, where the limbs came down all the way to the ground. And that’s where a lot of them spent their winters.”
The swamp near his home was once a good example of this kind of cover, Anderson said. But it is no longer.
“Now, you walk in there and you can almost see from one end of the swamp to the other underneath, where the trees have grown up and the limbs on the bottom have died off. There just isn’t the cover in there anymore and that pretty much forces the snowshoes out into the more open areas of the bigger forest.”
The snowshoe hares of Anderson’s youth weren’t limited to just the swamp cover, either.
“After World War II there was a hell of a big move to get a lot of reforestation done,” he recalled. “I remember planting as a kid. There were jack pine and red pine thickets where trees were coming up and the rabbits would go in there. The trees were so thick you could hardly get them out of there. Those have all grown up now.
“Of course, with the fishers, we’ve got more coyotes now and there’s wolves now,” Anderson said.
The hares are more vulnerable with less suitable cover. And sometimes, their own natural camouflage betrays them. Since they molt and turn white for the winter, if snow comes late or leaves early, you’ve got a white hare on a dark landscape. Anderson recalled a time in the 1980s, when this was a great advantage during a hunt.
“We had one winter where, right after deer season, the snow left,” he recalled. “We had a group up here ... friends of ours. In one weekend, we killed over 40 rabbits. They were sitting there, thinking they were hiding, and they weren’t.”
Once, it might have seemed like there was an almost endless supply of the snowshoe hares.
“We used to snare them, when it was legal, back when I was a single-digit number in age,” Anderson recalled. “You could walk on the rabbit trails through the swamps, they were so packed down.”
Anderson said his friend Tom Caroselli, who raises beagles and trains them to pursue hares, says there are some areas that still feature healthy populations.
“South of Rhinelander, somewhere, and over west toward Ladysmith, there’s areas over there, he said, where there are a lot of snowshoes yet.”
Anderson hasn’t tagged along on a hunt to these primer spots so far. He did hunt hares with Caroselli and others closer to home earlier this winter.
“We ran his beagles and we got two rabbits. You know, that was a big kill,” Anderson said with a chuckle.
Usually, now, Anderson leaves the hares alone.
“I do my snowshoeing every day out there in the swamp that we own, which used to be full of them. And there’s a few tracks in there and I see one once in a while, but I don’t even bother to carry a gun anymore.”
UW-Madison/DNR snowshoe hare research project
The Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in close collaboration with the Wisconsin DNR, is working on a project that is meant to shed some light on what’s happening with Wisconsin’s snowshoe hares.
Graduate student Sean Sultaire is leading the project. He said much of what Anderson and others have observed rings true. Like the time frame.
Sultaire noted “declines starting about 20 or so years ago that they haven’t recovered from.”
Their study area is the very fringe of snowshoe hare range – further south in the state.
“I believe, however, that what is occurring along the range boundary is indicative of what’s happening around the range of the species in the state,” he said.
Researchers are comparing the current southern range limit of Wisconsin hares to where it has been historically. They “hope to determine the most important variables associated with their occurrence (habitat, landscape, snow conditions),” Sultaire says.
The historical data they rely on for comparison comes from two past studies on the southern limits of hare range. One of these was conducted by famous Wisconsin scientist and conservationist Aldo Leopold in the 1940s. The other is a 1970s study by a UW research team.
“Right now we are revisiting these historic sites and conducting snow track surveys to see where [the hares] are still around,” Sultaire said.
“So far we have visited over 100 historic sites and have found hares at less (than) a quarter of them. Our main prediction for why ... is due to changing climate; warmer winters with less snow on the ground leave hares more vulnerable to predators.”
Sultaire said the hares’ yearly molt to white “is initiated by day length, not the presence of snow.”
But it isn’t necessarily just a lack of snow making hares more vulnerable, Sultaire points out. The condition of the snow can be an issue.
“Harder more crusted snow may give predators like coyotes more of an advantage in pursuing hares,” Sultaire said. “As opposed to powdery, less dense snow, where hares’ snow adaptations (snowshoes) should give them the advantage.”
Though the researchers approached their project by looking at the climate’s effect on the range, they also note factors like the composition of the forest.
Sultaire agrees with Anderson’s observations, noting that “forests have aged considerably in the past few decades and many of these areas just don’t have much cover for hares anymore, at least in the southern parts of their range.”
Sultaire said that a rise in the numbers of predators such as coyotes and fishers “could be playing a role” in the hares’ decline.
“However, hares have coexisted with these predators in the past and in other parts of their range,” Sultaire said. “So what we’re interested in is how that relationship is changing to favor these predators at the expense of hares. That’s where we think climate and, to some extent, maturing forests is playing a role.”
Some research documents a cyclical pattern to hare populations, much like the one observed for ruffed grouse. Sultaire believes that’s more applicable in more northern reaches of their range. He said farther south, populations are not thought to be cyclical.
“If the cycles do exist they are certainly not as pronounced as those further north,” he said. “The northern cycles also occur over roughly a ten year period, so you would think that if the decline was cyclic in nature it would be reversed by now.”
Sultaire noted that DNR track counts have shown a steady decline in hares over the years. It doesn’t appear to be all bad news for the snowshoe hare in the Wisconsin, though.
“One cool thing our project has shown so far is that we have found hares in some areas right at their historic southern range boundary,” Sultaire said, “so that may hint at ... adaptability in these populations, and maybe to conditions that will be favorable to their persistence into the future. We will have to see when we crunch the data.”
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.