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Hare apparent

Mammal focus of Wildlife Through Forestry series

A snowshoe hare is being fitted with a radio collar. The species, considered an “icon of the north woods,” is being managed and studied. (Photo courtesy of Gary Roloff)

ISHPEMING — Hare today, gone tomorrow? Not if conservationists and interested citizens have their way.

The snowshoe hare, whose brown fur changes to white in the winter for camouflage and gets its name from its large hind feet to adapt to deep snow, was the focus of a Tuesday forum sponsored by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The event took place at River Rock Lanes and Banquet Center.

“Habitat is the way to snowshoe hares,” said Jim Hammill, consulting wildlife biologist with the Safari Club International Foundation.

Gary Roloff, a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University, discussed snowshoe hares in the Great Lakes region.

Roloff called the snowshoe hare an “icon of the north woods.”

He believes these hares are special, and people should be concerned about them.

However, a little anatomical knowledge is helpful.

“Hares are not rabbits,” Roloff said. “They are an entirely different taxonomic order.”

Hares are larger than rabbits, for example, and unlike rabbits, hares are born with fur and open eyes.

Their behavior is different as well.

“Cottontail rabbits like to hide and burrow to escape things,” Roloff said. “Snowshoe hares start out hiding, but then they run.”

Michigan has hares and rabbits, he said, but has concerns when the species share a space.

“When you see the two together in an area, it’s the beginning of the end for hare,” Roloff said, “and it’s not because they compete with one another, but it’s signaling a change in the habitat.”

He believes a shift from habitat that had conifer components to habitat that doesn’t have them is the reason.

“Conifers are a really important part of winter snowshoe hare habitat,” Roloff said.

The major stronghold of snowshoe hare range, he noted, is in the boreal region of Canada and Alaska.

Fur color changes are important too, he said, with the two annual molts taking place in the fall and spring.

Remember: If you’re a hare, you don’t want to be brown in a white landscape and white in a brown landscape for camouflage’s sake.

“In the fall, the molt is triggered by photoperiod, and you have about a two-week window there where it might vary in the fall,” Roloff said. “In the spring, that window of variation is a lot larger, and it’s believed to be tied to how much snow is left on the ground. What’s the condition of the habitat? Is succulent forage starting to come out?

“They turn back to brown over a much wider range of days in the spring compared to the fall. That fact has really important ramifications for why snowshoe hares might not do well in poor habitat.”

Hares are an important part of the winter system in terms of prey in the Upper Peninsula, said Roloff, who pointed out that predators such as bobcats, fishers and martens search out and prey on hares.

In the boreal regions, hares also can change the trajectory of the plant community just as white-tailed deer affect Michigan forests, he said.

And like deer, they can be hunted.

“Hares are actually a reasonably important recreational species to the hunters of MIchigan, the citizens of Michigan,” Roloff said.

He believes landowners can help hares on their own.

Since hares typically are a small-scale species with a home range of about 15 acres, Roloff said people can impact them positively — the key being to provide dense forest under stories through actions such as creating special structures and managing logging debris on bigger operations.

Also speaking at Tuesday’s event was Eric Clark, lead biologist with the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

“We have a lot of focus on snowshoe hare as a species of concern,” Clark told the audience, noting it’s an important subsistence species for tribal hunters.

He said climate change is something to consider with hare conservation, with expected rising temperatures and declining snowfalls, although total precipitation might increase — meaning snow will fall as rain.

That’s problematic for the hare.

“We know that snowshoe hare are adapted to deep snow and cold temperatures,” Clark said. “We also know that they’re heavily dependent on conifer and sort of this boreal and transition forest-type makeup.”

The tribe, he said, wants to develop a model that looks at climate change, habitat and occupancy to better understand snowshoe hares.

Clark said the tribe is looking at assessing the association between snowshoe hare vital rates, such as mortality, and how they relate to population performance measures such as diseases and parasites, hormone stress markers from fecal material and other things.

“Can we then relate that to vegetation conditions?” Clark asked.

For instance, he said the tribe wants to determine the reasons behind many hares being found in one spot; does that mean that’s due to high reproductive rates or low mortality rates?

“If we can understand those, that makes it much easier for us to understand what’s a climate-related physiological response and what’s a habitat response,” Clark said.

High-tech tools being used to assessment hare abundance and density, he said, include VHS — very high frequency — collars.

The tribe also has been working cooperatively with the Hiawatha National Forest, he said, by creating vegetative plots and collecting fecal pellets.

The event was to include a segment on the bobcat, but Chris Jacques, an assistant professor of large animal ecology and wildlife researcher at Western Illinois University, was unable to attend.

However, the forum did show a webcam of a bobcat lurking around a deer gut pile at night, apparently with caution to keep an eye out for possible predators such as wolves. The bobcat then took parts of the pile off to a safer location.

Bobcats, it should be noted, prey on white-tailed deer while they’re alive.

“I don’t know of any predator that’s more efficient in killing deer,” Hamill said.

One DNR official believes hunting small game such as hares can attract young people to hunting.

“We need to start with kids to maintain the hunting heritage,” said Terry Minzey, a DNR wildlife supervisor.

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