|The white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) is truly not a rabbit but a hare. Its ears and hind legs are longer than a rabbits, and the young are born with their eyes open and furred, while rabbits are born hairless and blind. The "jack" is the largest member of the rabbit family found in Wisconsin, with snowshoe hares and cottontail rabbits being the other two. It is not known if jackrabbits were living ion Wisconsin prior to the early settlements. At the end of the 1800's and early in the 1900's, deforestation seemed to contribute to the spread of jacks into much of the southern and central parts of the state. There were also widespread stocking attempts made during these natural expansions. By the early 1950's, the state's jackrabbit population seemed to peak at between 50,000 and 75,000 hares, but since that time, their numbers have continued to decline, mostly due to habitat loss. The current number of jacks in Wisconsin today is unknown, but we do know that the species does exist in areas of favorable habitat throughout the state. The DNR placed the species on their "watch list", because they don't know much about jackrabbits.
White-tailed jackrabbits are typically 22-27 inches long and weigh 5-10 pounds, with females tending to be slightly larger than the males. The ears can be 8 inches in length and can rotate to detect sounds from all directions. Sight and smell are also very keen, and jacks are able to detect even the slightest movement at a great distance with their large, brown eyes, all the while sniffing the air to detect predators and find food. Their hind feet are large and powerful, and combined with the long legs, these animals are built for speed, having been clocked at over 40 miles per hour. A more normal running speed would be about 35 MPH, and their leaps can span 17 feet or more. In the summer, this hare is brownish gray, with a black patch extending along the backside of the ear to the tip. During the winter, the coat becomes snowy white, with only the ear being tipped in black. These color changes allow the jackrabbit to blend in with surroundings, which is an important line of defense. All year-round, the tail is completely white, which combined with the jack-ass-like ears, give the white-tailed jackrabbit its name.
Jacks begin mating about mid-April in Wisconsin, and during this time there is heavy competition among the males for breeding rights. Males fight rivals by standing on tiptoes and boxing with the forefeet or kicking with the hind feet, chasing, or even biting. Eventually, the strongest prevail and the victors mate with several females during the breeding season. Females give birth to 2-6 young, and may have three litters per year. They make no real nest or shelter for their young, and instead may drop them onto bare ground or in a scratched-out resting place, called a "form". Young jacks are fully furred and have their eyes open at birth, and they average 5-8 inches in length and weigh 2-6 ounces. They begin nursing within 5 minutes, and they can even stand and walk a little. After about 15 days, the young hares are weaned and begin foraging for food, and after two months, they are mature and leave the litter for life on their own.
These hares are basically vegetarians. In summer, their diet will be 25-50 percent grasses, but they will also feed on other wild and cultivated plant vegetation such as grains, clover, alfalfa and green shoots. Jacks also eat small amounts of soil to gain the necessary minerals they need for survival. During the winter, jackrabbits feed on alternate food sources such as buds, small twigs and bark of woody bushes and young fruit trees, and if necessary scattered hay or straw when available. During times of heavy snowfall, you may see jacks feeding in groups on haystacks.
The white-tailed jackrabbit is scarce, but widely distributed, in Wisconsin. What started out as an open country, prairie species has adapted to areas of moderate to intensive agriculture, preferring cropland and pasture intermixed with scattered, bushy fencerows, which were once prairie lands. Small populations of jacks live in open space pockets of suitable habitat throughout central and southern Wisconsin. These hares avoid large areas of wooded cover and use the edges of woodlots and forested sections only for shelter during extreme winter weather. The home range is normally less than a half-mile radius and may be as small as one large field, and only food shortage, predator pressure or too many hares will cause it to move out of its area. Over-population is probably the main reason for dispersal, as jacks are not a highly social species. Feeding occurs mostly during early morning and at twilight, although they may feed during moonlit hours of the night, and occasionally feed during daylight hours on cloudy days. Jackrabbits remain active throughout the winter, but when snow is deep, they may burrow 3-4 feet under the snow, both for shelter or hiding purposes. During warmer months, jacks don't tunnel, but they do wear down trails by repeatedly using the same paths. Normal rate of travel is a series of short hops, which are 1-3 feet apart. Camouflage is the hare's main defense against predators, and often, it will lay on the ground, with ears flat against its body, and not move until closely approached. When flushed, jacks jump at full speed, ears erect and moving to detect sounds, and they may jump vertically to detect intruders and thump hind feet on the ground to warn other hares of danger. Predators include fox, coyote, great horned owl, golden eagle and large hawks, and mortality also results from hunting and automobiles. Numerous parasites and diseases also take their toll, such as lice, fleas, ticks, tapeworms, roundworms, flukes, and tularemia, which is transmissible to humans. All jackrabbit meat should be thoroughly cooked and you should not handle or dress a jack with cuts or abrasions on your hands.
Little is known about the harvest of jackrabbits in Wisconsin, but it is thought that approximately 8,000 are taken each year. Hares are hunted best with dogs, and the beagle is most often the dog of choice, and there has to be a balance or harmony between the hunter and the dog to be successful. The hunter can be a good shot, the habitat can be great, the dog can run beautifully and yet no jacks may be harvested. You must be in sync with your dog, and let him do the work after you have selected the location. Let the dog hunt the hares and you hunt the dog, following his leads and avoiding dense cover for open shots. Constant moving after the jack has been jumped will decrease your chances, as you will be spotted and the hare will head for cover. Stand still and wait for the dog to work his magic and bring the quarry to you. There is no need for off-balance jump shooting when working with a good dog, just understand his work and be patient. Hares don't run in circles, as many people believe, but they will tend to stay in their home ranges, so it may be 20 minutes after the jump before you get your shot, and your opportunity may be brief. Don't give up if the dog quits barking, as it might have only temporarily lost the scent, and the race might be on momentarily. Normally, one running jack doesn't mean that there is only one hare in your area, as others may sit if not being pursued. Occasionally, you might get a bonus jack if a "sitter" becomes nervous and bolts, so always be alert. Start by facing the barking, but always be mindful for movement using your peripheral vision, as hares zigzag and might approach from the right or left and maybe even behind. Movement doesn't seem to bother hares at over 40 yards, but it will spook them if they're closer, especially if they are headed toward you. When your dog is hot on the trail, he will act like a busy spouse, and disregard your commands, so it makes sense to let him be during the thrill of the chase and reprimand or counsel him when the scent of hare is not so strong. The dog is not really chasing hares, and he rarely sees them, but he loves to chase the scent. Hares are best hunted with several hunters and several dogs, but now knowing your dog and the signals that he sends are ever more important. Always wear plenty of blaze orange clothing when hunting in groups and use bells on the dogs. Without a dog you can try jump shooting in good habitat, by walking and stopping thru thick cover trying to get a shot at a bounding hare.