Snowshoe Hare
The snowshoe hare gets its name from its large well-furred feet that act as snowshoes, allowing it to hop across deep snow. It is also called the "varying hare", as it changes color with the seasons. In the summer, hares are rusty brown with black on the upper part of the tail and ear tips and grayish white on the underside of the belly and tail. In late fall, hares start to lose their summer coat and, during approximately ten weeks, replace it with white fur, appearing first on the feet and ears and then covering the body. In the spring, this process is reversed, and the winter coat is replaced once again by the brown fur. Historically, snowshoes were found in northern and central Wisconsin and in isolated tamarack and alder swamps in the southeastern part of the state. Their distribution made a dramatic change, however, as the northern forests were logged, burned and cleared for agriculture. Logging operations reached their peak in the late 1800's, and the last wildfires ended in the 1930's. After logging was completed, much of the land in central Wisconsin was extensively drained and planted in agricultural crops, limiting the hares' population mainly to the northern part of the state, where they are still currently restricted today. Snowshoe populations fluctuate greatly, peaking about once every ten years, and during these peak periods, numbers might reach nearly five million. Maintaining quality hare habitat in Wisconsin requires forest habitat management, and most good habitat is kept or improved by logging activity in the northern forests. Logging practices that create young forest stands and forest management techniques like aspen vegetation, clear cutting, thinning and selective cutting all benefit snowshoe hares.

Snowshoe hares are relatively small animals, about halfway in size between cottontails and jackrabbits. Adults are typically 15-20 inches long and weigh 2-4 pounds, with males normally weighing about ten percent more than females. Snowshoes have an acute sense of hearing, aided by long ears to gather sounds. The sensitive nose and long whiskers allow them to feed at night, and their large hind feet make it possible to stand upright to reach branches while feeding. Hare's front teeth are quite strong and are perfectly adapted for gnawing tree bark and woody twigs. The snowshoe's tracks are similar to the cottontail's tracks, except larger and the toes appear spread. The tracks often appear indistinct, as the feet are well furred, and tracks made by the hind and front feet are often less than 12 inches apart. When running, however, the tracks can have a span of 5-6 feet.

Snowshoes begin breeding in early March and continue through late August. Male hares pursue females for mating by leading them on zigzag chases through the woods. Each male mates with several females, and each mature female can produce 2-5 litters per year. The female gives birth to 3 or 4 young, and she doesn't construct a nest, but instead uses a packed down area, or "form" in a sheltered spot under bushes, grass, shrubs or a fallen log or tree. The young hares are fully covered with soft downy fur at birth and weigh about 2 1/2 ounces. Their eyes open immediately, and soon after birth, the young hares begin hopping around and become quite active. They are not weaned until they are a month old, but they begin nibbling on grass at about ten days. Young hares grow quickly and reach adult size in about five months. They breed during the spring following their birth, however, mortality is high and only about 30% of them reach one year of age, and the survivors will only live an average of two years.

The hare's diet varies with the seasons. During the summer, hares particularly like green vegetation, including grasses, clover, dandelions and raspberry and blackberry shoots. In the winter, when there is no fresh vegetation to be found, snowshoes favor buds, twigs and bark of woody plants like aspen, willow, birch, maple, sumac and alder. They also will eat needles of conifers, including fir, cedar, hemlock, spruce and white pine. Snowshoe hares destruction of young trees and new forest growth sometimes damage forests, and conifer plantation and nurseries can be especially affected, where high densities of young trees occur. In natural forests, however, it is often beneficial to thin young stands and allow surviving trees better growing conditions. The damage done by hares is far outweighed by the many benefits of the species as a game animal, a prey animal, and a valuable part of our state's ecosystem.

Snowshoe hares are found primarily in the northern third of Wisconsin, preferring conifer forests with areas of dense underbrush, particularly conifer lowland forests and young aspen stands. They will also inhabit spruce and cedar swamps if the water levels remain low. These hares rarely leave wooded areas, and during the day they rest in their "forms", often hiding in low vegetation or even inside hollow logs or abandoned animal burrows. Hares tend to feed at night, with peak feeding about 11 PM, and while foraging, they often follow paths or "runways" which are worn into the vegetation, and can be quite obvious in high hare density areas. A dust bath area is another sign of hare presence, where small groups gather to groom. Snowshoes are not very social animals, and during the mating season, pregnant females will drive off intruding males and males may actually fight each other biting and clawing. The home ranges of females average three to four acres, while males cover the home ranges of several females. Hares represent a primary food source for bobcats, and other predators include coyotes, foxes, weasels, great horned owls, some of the larger hawks, and in general most of the mammalian and avian predators within its range. Fluctuations in hare populations greatly affect predator species populations that depend on the hares for their food supply. Accidents involving cars and forest and brush fires also kill hares, and young often die from wet or cold weather conditions. In addition, parasites like ticks, fleas, lice, tapeworms and lungworms can infect snowshoes, as well as Tularemia, which is transmissible to humans. Always cook hare meat thoroughly and avoid cleaning or handling snowshoes when you have cuts or abrasions on your hands.

The snowshoe hare has been hunted in Wisconsin's northern counties since 1935, and in 1965 a year-round statewide hunting season was established without bag limits. These hares are not a popular game species, with only about 3% of the population being harvested during peak years. Hares can be hunted most effectively with dogs, such as beagles, as they will need to be prodded out of their daytime resting spots. Don't be tempted to shoot hares on the jump if you have the services of a well-trained dog that can bring them around for you. Without a dog you can try jump shooting in prime habitat, by walking and stopping thru good cover and trying to get a shot at a bounding hare. New snow might offer some tracking opportunities, but remember these hares are active mostly at night, and, by morning light, tracks might be nonexistent. Always wear plenty of blaze orange clothing when hunting with other hunters, and use bells on the dogs to help know where they are at all times.