Snowshoe hare hunting may not be the most popular sport, but it can result in some fun, friendship, and food as the Masked Biologist tells us in this week’s Wildlife Matters.
My older brother came to the Northwoods for a grouse hunt immediately prior to the end of this year’s shortened season. He wasn’t in my area, he was staying at a cabin with a group of guys and spending the weekend doing what guys do at a cabin for a weekend. He later reported that, while the grouse hunting was poor, the snowshoe hare hunting was excellent. He was the only member of his group to shoot any, but he bagged five in one day.
Snowshoe hares are Wisconsin’s largest member of the lagomorph family, which includes any rabbits and hares. They are far larger than cottontails, growing up to twenty inches long and weighing 3-4 pounds. It has also historically been referred to as the varying hare for its color variations, from a brownish color in the summer to a bright white in the winter. The word “snowshoe” in its name refers to the conspicuously large hind foot, which spreads wide at the toes. These large, hairy feet help the hare stay on top of the snow and move about easily to feed and evade predators. Snowshoes live in areas of mixed forest, preferring some kind of evergreen component like balsams or hemlock. They feed on twigs and bark, and are highly reliant on hiding under overhead cover to avoid predators. Consequently, their best habitat will have deadfalls, thick brush or some other tangled ground cover to hide them. Similar to cottontails, snowshoes carry off three to four litters of three to four leverets a season, but unlike the completely helpless cottontail newborns, their young are precocious, meaning they are born with eyes open and covered with fur. They are able to hop and walk within 24 hours of birth.
The snowshoe hare is frankly one of the more neglected game species in Wisconsin. It is not actually managed, at least not intensively. There are surveys sent out to a sample of hunters each year asking about small game hunting effort, species, and success, so there is information that tells us that (for example) last year 3,200 hunters spent almost 17,000 days afield hunting hares, with a total estimated harvest of just over 2,300. Compare that to another small mammal, the squirrel, which has over 34,000 hunters that harvested over 204,000 animals, and you can see how low participation is in this sport.
My brother and I grew up hunting snowshoes, cottontails, and ruffed grouse because, as I have mentioned in previous episodes, we grew up hovering around the poverty line, and these were cheap and tasty supplemental protein in winter. Plus, rabbits and hares were species my dad had grown up hunting in southeast Wisconsin, so it was a sport he knew and enjoyed.
Today, we have seen a significant shift northward in the range of the snowshoe hare. Some research done by Dr. Jonathan Pauli from UW Madison has clearly demonstrated a link to the moderation of our winters, change in snow cover over time, and other climate effects. I would also surmise that habitat has had a significant impact on these hares, especially further north where they used to be more abundant. This year, I have had more reports than I can ever remember of people seeing snowshoe hares in good numbers. These observations have been in areas where aspen regeneration has occurred post-harvest, which is a preferred habitat and food source for these animals. Some good news as we see other wildlife species around us struggling to deal with increase in disease, changes in predation, and loss, maturation or destruction of habitat.
My brother recently told me that his group of guys has decided to return to the Northwoods in the near future for another snowshoe hunt. It appears they want a rematch. Good luck, I say to them—I have been trying to beat him at hunting, fishing, cribbage, anything I can boast about, for decades and I am still trying. At least they have found a way to get out in the woods and enjoy what nature has to offer this time of year.
Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.
The photo above was taken by Tim Rains (NPS) and can be found on Flickr here.