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  • Ann Bennett

Examining Lepus Americanus

One creature that must be a little bewildered by this winter's weather is the Snowshoe hare. With the onset of late fall, Lepus Americanus sheds its summer coat of brown, replacing it with a winter suit of white fur. This winter rather than acting as a camouflage, the Snowshoe's white coat is quite an attention-getter.

The Snowshoe hare, or Varying hare, as it was once popularly known, inhabits woodlands and brushy swamps from New England to Hudson Bay, covering a band of coinciding width west to Alaska. The individual animal rarely ranges more than several acres in its lifetime, though, and unlike its cousin the Cottontail, does not go into the ground in burrows. preferring to nest and raise its young nestled in deep undergrowth.

Since it is virtually defenseless, the Snowshoe must protect itself with its speed -- the animal is capable of clearing eight to ten feet in a bound, and can travel at speeds close to 30 miles per hour. It also has the ability to dodge and weave with remarkable adroitness - talents that make it a difficult target for hunters.

Strangely enough, the Snowshoe hare is also a strong swimmer. While it may not actively like the water, nevertheless, the Snowshoe will not hesitate to take the plunge when it must, and can swim considerable distances.

The animal has other unusual habits, too, the strangest being loud squeals or bleats when in extreme fear. The hare also makes a drumming noise with its hind legs to signal danger.

A versatile eater, the Snowshoe hare relies on grasses, buds, twigs and other herbaceous things during the summer months. Of course, it is not adverse to wandering into a garden to imbibe on domestic greens, either. In winter, the diet consists of buds, twigs and needles of conifers, and sometimes the bark of poplar, willow and young birch trees. Occasionally the animal will also eat the bark of young firs, making it a nuisance in tree plantations. The Snowshoe hare drinks dew for moisture in the summer, and eats snow during the winter.

The species is known for its tendency toward marked swings in population, and it is generally acknowledged that the cycles are of a 10-year duration. The reasons for that particular time span are little understood, although as Carl Lacaillade, game biologist for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, noted, people come up with all sorts of explanations. "Some folks say it's sun spots, but there are more scientifically founded factors, too," he stated. "It is believed that the hares exercise a sort of physiological self-control. For instance, the animals have fewer young in an over-populated area, and there is a higher mortality rate among those born," Lacaillade continued. "Also, over-populated areas are more susceptible to disease, which oftentimes cut the animals back to manageable numbers."

It has also been shown that predator cycles coincide with the Snowshoe hare population. Bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and owls all prey on the animal, and their numbers will vary in direct proportion to the status of the Snowshoe.

The Snowshoe hare is an extremely prolific breeder, Lacaillade noted, usually producing three litters a year. These litters average two to five young, and the newborns normally have an extraordinary survival rate. "They are a strong breed, and are born 'precocious'," Lacaillade explained. "In other words, they emerge fully furred, eyes open, and are quickly ready to move to avert danger."

New Hampshire has a fairly stable Snowshoe hare population, particularly in its northern counties, according to Lacaillade, and apparently does not suffer the obvious cycles experienced in other parts of the country. This was not the case at the turn of the century, however, and in the 1930s, the Fish and Game Department even stocked the countryside with Snowshoe hare.

But times have changed. "Stocking was a big thing in the '30s," Lacaillade said," and it was costly and wasteful. Today we have a far more sophisticated understanding of wildlife management in terms of habitat, feeding habits, and that sort of thing. It did no good to stock the animals when there wasn't suitable habitat for them. But these days, there is ample range," he added.

The Snowshoe hare has always been sought as a game animal, both for meat and its pelt. In fact, the longest hunting season in the state of New Hampshire is open on the Snowshoe, starting October 1 and continuing through March 15. Still, Lacaillade feels there's little danger that the species will be adversely affected by hunters. In fact, the last several years, especially in northern New Hampshire, have been very good ones for the Snowshoe hare, and there's no indication that will change."

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