When is the last time you saw a snowshoe hare? I was recently asked that question in reference to the Turtle Mountains. It has been awhile.
Snowshoe hares are one of nature’s better known curiosities. During the summer of course, the snowshoe hare is grayish brown. Then over the span of about 10 weeks during the autumn, their fur changes to white. This color change is due to changing photoperiod, not dropping temperatures.
Snowshoe hares can be found over much of Canada, the northern United States, as well as in the Sierra, Rocky, and Appalachian mountains. We generally think of them as a species of the northern coniferous forest. However, they can also be found in other forest types including aspen-birch forest and northern hardwood forest.
Vegetation structure may be more important to snowshoe hares than the type of vegetation. Their preferred habitat includes a dense shrub layer that will enable protection, travel cover, and food. During the summer they consume a variety of plants, but during the winter they feed more on the buds and twigs of shrubs and trees such as aspen, willow, and birch.
Snowshoe hares occupied several areas of North Dakota during earlier times. Vernon Bailey in his A Biological Survey of North Dakota published in 1926 reported that historically they could be found in the Turtle Mountains, Pembina Hills, around Devils Lake, and the wooded areas along the Red, Souris, and Missouri rivers. But he did consider them to be uncommon with the exception of the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills.
He noted that one snowshoe hare was collected in Fargo in 1913 for the agriculture college collection. He also noted that they were quite common in the woods and thickets adjacent to the Des Lacs River in the Kenmare area as well as along the Souris River in Minot. During 1910 in the Buford area they were reportedly common in the brushy river flats dominated by willows where their runways and peeled willows were quite conspicuous. He also made reference to them in the Elbowoods and Cannonball areas.
Snowshoe hares are widely known for their 8-11 year population cycles which closely correspond to population cycles of their principle predator the lynx. Lynx are rare or non-existent in North Dakota, but even at that, their populations are still cyclic. So as you travel the state this winter be on the lookout for this interesting animal.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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