Predators, prey and preservation

Snowshoe hare, bobcat relationships to be discussed at DNR forum

A bobcat is captured on a trail cam as it roams through the forest. Bobcats, the predator-prey relationship between bobcats and snowshoe hares, as well as how landowners can support both species through forest management practices, will be discussed on Tuesday at a Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Through Forestry forum titled “Snowshoe Hare and Bobcat – Populations and Habitat.” (Photo courtesy of Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Natural Resource Department)

MARQUETTE — The snowshoe hare is a critical prey animal in the region, particularly for the bobcat, fisher and pine marten, meaning a decline in the snowshoe hare population can impact the well-being of these predator species.

However, there are steps landowners can take to help support snowshoe hares and, in turn, the species that rely upon them.

Due to this, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is hosting a Wildlife Through Forestry forum Tuesday evening titled “Snowshoe Hare and Bobcat – Populations and Habitat,” featuring presentations by multiple experts on the topic. The free event will be held from 5:30-9 p.m. at River Rock Lanes and Banquet Center, 1011 North Road, Ishpeming.

The forum can provide attendees with a comprehensive understanding of the predator-prey relationship between snowshoe hares and bobcats while teaching them how to best manage their lands to provide supportive habitats for these species, DNR Service Forester Gary Willis said.

“The main goal is to show the public and landowners how to increase wildlife populations by means of a well written, carefully implemented resource management plan,” he said. “Whether it’s a homeowner or whether it’s someone who has 1,000 acres, we want them all to have a deeper understanding.”

For those who want to speak with a professional about land management, resource personnel will be available at 5 p.m. The event will kick off at 5:30 p.m. with Jim Hammill of the SCI Foundation opening the forum.

At 5:50 p.m., Michigan State University wildlife biology professor Gary Roloff will deliver an hour-long presentation titled “Hare today, gone tomorrow? Snowshoe hares in the Great Lakes Region.”

Roloff, who directs the Applied Forest and Wildlife Ecology Lab at MSU, is “one of the top snowshoe hare researchers in the country,” Willis said.

The talk will cover the ecological and cultural significance of the snowshoe hare, Roloff said.

Ecologically, the snowshoe hare is an “important prey species for a variety of predators and, when hare occur at very high densities, a species that can alter how vegetation communities develop,” he said. Culturally, the snowshoe hare is “an important recreational species to Michigan hunters, and as a clan animal for Native American tribes,” Roloff added.

Dr. Dwayne Etter, a research biologist from the DNR Wildlife Division, holds a snowshoe hare while David Burt, a former student of Michigan State University wildlife biology professor Gary Roloff, places a collar on the hare for research purposes. Roloff, shown below, is one of the top snowshoe hare researchers in the country, will deliver a presentation at the DNR forum. (Photos courtesy of Gary Roloff)

However, Roloff’s research has shown this species has been in decline, largely due to changing habitat and climate conditions.

“We found that areas historically occupied by hares no longer contain hares in some spots,” he said. “This pattern is most prevalent in the southern edge of snowshoe hare range in the northern Lower Peninsula, but we also saw some areas ‘blink out’ in the Upper Peninsula as well.”

In the Lower Peninsula, warmer climate conditions likely play a stronger role in the population decline, while habitat changes are likely to be driving the decline in the Upper Peninsula, Roloff said.

The ideal habitat for snowshoe hares consists of “early successional stands of mixed aspen, hardwood and especially conifers like balsam fir, spruce, cedar,” as snowshoe hares have “an amazing digestive system” that allows them to sustain themselves with foods such as maple buds and spruce needles, Willis said.

“One of the key reasons why they’re so successful and so important,” Willis said, is that hares can thrive in these “otherwise very impoverished habitats” and use trees as food sources because they have a specialized pouch connected to the digestive system. This allows snowshoe hares to “digest the cellulose and convert it into fatty acids just like deer, moose and cows,” Willis said.

So how can individuals and private landowners help the snowshoe hare?

“Snowshoe hares use relatively small areas, particularly if the habitat is high quality, so individual private landowners can do relatively inexpensive things to provide hare habitat on their lands,” Roloff said.

During the forum, attendees can learn how to do “simple things like favoring conifer regeneration in forest understories, providing patches of dense regenerating forests,” as well as providing thick vegetation through crisscrossed logging debris, he said.

It’s important to recognize, Willis said, “what makes good snowshoe hare habitat also makes good bobcat habitat,” due to the predator-prey relationship between bobcats and snowshoe hares.

Due to this, bobcats will be discussed at 7:15 p.m. in a talk called “Ecology of bobcats in agriculturally dominated Midwestern landscapes” by Chris Jacques, a professor and wildlife researcher at Western Illinois University.

Following Jacques, Eric Clark, lead biologist for the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, will present “Old and New — The importance of snowshoe hare to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the use of high-tech tools to conserve snowshoe hare in Michigan.”

With numerous experts covering many aspects of the relationship between snowshoe hare, bobcats and habitat, Willis hopes the forum can help inform area residents and inspire action.

“People have a voice in their community,” he said. “And the more we get the word out about natural resource management, especially habitat, the more support and the more positive things we’re going to see for forestry and wildlife.”

For information about management plans, the DNR’s Commercial Forest Program or the upcoming forum, contact Willis at 906-353-6651, ext. 122 or willisg2@michigan.gov.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.


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