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The Rise and Fall of the Snowshoe Hare

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  • Pat Morris
    The Rise and Fall of the Snowshoe Hare Decline has predators on the prowl By TIM MOWRY Outdoors Editor You don t have to tell Randy Zarnke that the snowshoe
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2002
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      The Rise and Fall of the Snowshoe Hare
      Decline has predators on the prowl
      By TIM MOWRY
      Outdoors Editor


      You don't have to tell Randy Zarnke that the snowshoe hare population has
      crashed in the Interior. He sees it every weekend when he walks his trapline
      north of Fairbanks on a pair of snowshoes.

      "Last year when I walked my line you never were out of sight of rabbit
      tracks," said Zarnke, a part-time trapper and full-time wildlife biologist
      for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "Now you only see a few."

      It happens every 10 years or so, almost like clockwork.

      The snowshoe hare population grows so big, so fast, that the food supply
      can't keep up. The hares basically starve themselves out because they
      reproduce too fast.

      "When they get to the top of their cycle like they did a couple years ago,
      the majority of high-quality forage is gone," said Zarnke.

      The lack of good food causes the reproductive rate of female hares to
      plummet and the population begins to decline. Predators, especially lynx,
      force it farther down, into what biologists refer to as a "predator pit,"
      the point where the population can't keep up with the demand of predators. A
      year or two later, when there are no more hares to eat, it's the predators'
      turn to crash.

      "Hares crash and generally a year or two later lynx hit the bottom," said
      Fish and Game furbearer biologist Mark McNay. "Last year the number of hares
      was down and this year it's down even more. We're getting down toward the
      bottom."

      There is no predator-prey relationship more closely tied than that of the
      snowshoe hare and lynx. When the hare population peaks, so does the lynx
      population. When the number of hares drops, so do the number of lynx.

      "In the 23 or 24 years I've been here we've never had a hare population go
      this high and we've never had a lynx population as high as it's been the
      last two or three years," Zarnke said.

      While lynx sightings are usually rare, Fish and Game has received several
      reports of lynx over the past few months as the stealthy cats get bolder and
      search farther for food.

      "We've been getting lots and lots of reports of lynx in places where we're
      not used to seeing them," said Fish and Game's Cathie Harms. "They're having
      to work a lot harder right now to find food."

      While snowshoe hares are not the sole food source for lynx--the cats also
      eat grouse or ptarmigan and have even been known to kill young caribou and
      Dall sheep on occasion--they are the primary one. During lows in the
      snowshoe hare population, lynx are hardpressed to find enough food to eat.
      Many of them don't.

      "Those lynx that survive have varied diets that include things like red
      squirrels, grouse and microtines," McNay said. "Those that can do it
      effectively are the ones that make it through the cycle."

      The increase in lynx sightings doesn't surprise wildlife biologists. With
      fewer snowshoe hares, lynx are looking for alternative food sources wherever
      they can find them.

      "When predators are in dire straits they'll do things they normally wouldn't
      do," said Zarnke.

      Judging from the number of tracks they saw prior to the season, trappers
      thought this would be another big lynx year but that hasn't been the case,
      Zarnke said.

      "A lot of us said, 'Geez, there's lynx tracks everywhere; it's going to be
      another great year for lynx,"' Zarnke said. "We're not seeing that. I think
      what happened is there were fewer lynx out there but they were running
      around more than the year before because they were looking for something to
      eat."

      One trapper told Zarnke he caught only two lynx this year on his trapline in
      the Yukon Flats after taking 26 a year ago.

      Lynx aren't the only predators who may have growling stomachs because of the
      low number of snowshoe hares, either.

      A great-horned owl has been terrorizing one neighborhood in the Goldstream
      Valley, said Harms.

      The owl has attempted to make off with several small dogs and has been more
      than a little brazen. One dog owner kicked the owl twice to get it to let go
      of her dog.

      Another person was walking a puppy on a leash and the owls swooped down and
      grabbed the dog. It didn't drop the puppy until the leash got wrapped around
      the owner's leg.

      "It goes right down the line, from lynx to fox to coyotes to birds of prey,"
      said biologist Jeff Selinger. "They all benefitted from the hare high. Now
      that the hares have gone away they're looking for something to eat."

      http://www.news-miner.com/Stories/0,1002,7247%257E374054,00.html'



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