Snowshoe hares are equipped with long ears to gather sounds, giving them an acute sense of hearing. Also, their front feet are quite strong and are specialized for gnawing on tree bark and woody twigs. The sensitive nose and long whiskers of the hares allow them to feed at night, and their large hind feet enable them to stand upright to reach branches while feeding.
The snowshoe’s tracks are similar to those of the cottontail, but are larger and the toes appear spread. Also, because the feet are well furred, the tracks often appear indistinct. The tracks made by the hind and front feet are often less than 12 inches apart, although they can be spaced more than five or six feet when the animal is running.
Snowshoe hares begin breeding in early March and continue through August. During mating, male hares purse the females, leading them in zig-zag chase through the woods. Each male mates with several females and the female hare can produce two to five litters per year.
After a gestation period of 36 days, the female snowshoe gives birth to 3 or 4 young. No nest is actually constructed, although she may give birth in a packed down area or "form" in sheltered spot under bushes, grass, shrubs or a fallen tree. The young hares are precocial, fully covered with soft downy fur. They weigh; about 2 1/2 - ounces and their eyes are open. Soon after birth, the young hares begin to hop around and, they are quite active after about one week.
When they are ten days old, the young snowshoes begin nibbling on grass, although they are not weaned until they are a month old. They grow quickly and reach their adult size by about five months. Snowshoe hares breed during the spring following their birth. However, mortality is high for the young hares and only about 30 percent of them reach one year of age. Those survivors will live for about 2 years on the average.
The snowshoe's diet changes with the seasons. During the summer, hares forage on green vegetation including grasses, clover, dandelions and raspberry and blackberry shoots. In the winter, when fresh vegetation is unavailable, snowshoes feed on buds, twigs and bark of woody plants like aspen, willow, birch, maple, sumac, and alder. They also prefer the needles of conifers, including fir; cedar; hemlock, spruce, and white pine.
Snowshoe hares sometimes damage forests by destroying young trees and new forest growth. They especially affect conifer plantations and nurseries, where high densities of young trees occur. However, in natural forest areas, the hares can actually be beneficial as they thin young stands and allow surviving trees better growing conditions. In any case, the damage done by hares is usually far outweighed by the many benefits of the species -- both as game animal and as a valuable part of our state’s ecosystem.
Habits and Habitat
Snowshoe hares inhabit mainly the northern third of Wisconsin, preferring conifer forests with areas if dense understory. Conifer lowland forests and young aspen stands are especially good hare habitat. They also frequently inhabit spruce and cedar swamps, as long as the water levels remain low. Snowshoe hares rarely leave wooded areas.
During the day, hares rest in the "forms", often hiding in low gravling vegetation or even inside hollow logs or abandoned animal burrows. They feed at night, with peak feeding occurring around 11:00 p.m. While foraging, the animals often follow paths or “runways” which are worn into the vegetation. These runways can be quite obvious in areas of high hare densities. Another sign of the presents of snowshoes is a dust bath, where small groups of hares may gather to groom.
Hares are not highly social. During the breeding season, pregnant females drive off intruding males and male hares may actually fight each other by biting and clawing. The home range of female snowshoes average three to four acres, while males travel greater distances, covering the home areas of several females.
Snowshoe hares represent important food for bobcats and are preyed on by a large number of animals, including coyotes, foxes, weasels, great horned owls, and some of the larger hawks. Also, accidents involving cars and forest and brush fires can result in hare mortality. Young snowshoes often die as a result of continued wet or cold weather.
In addition, parasites like ticks, lice, tapeworms, and lung worms can infect hares. Tularemia, a disease which is transmissable to humans, can affect snowshoes. People can avoid getting the disease by thoroughly cooking all snowshoe meat and by making sure not to clean or handle hares when they have cuts or abrasions on their hands.
History and Current Statue in Wisconsin
Historically, snowshoe hares were found throughout northern and central Wisconsin and also inhabited isolated tamarack and alder swamps in the southeastern part of the state. However, their distribution changed drastically as the extensive northern forests were logged, burned and cleared for agriculture.
Logging reached its peak in the late 1800’s, and the last wildfires ended in the 1930's. Following logging, the land in central Wisconsin extensively drained and planted in agricultural crops, so that the hares’ population had become limited mainly to the northern part of the state.
Currently, snowshoes are restricted to the northern half of Wisconsin. Hare populations fluctuate greatly, peaking about once every ten years. During these peak periods, numbers may reach 4.5 million in Wisconsin.
The snowshoe hare has been hunted in Wisconsin's northern counties since 1935. A year- round hunting season without bag limits was established statewide in 1965 and continues today. Snowshoes are not a popular game species; only about 3% of the population is shot during peak years. During the mid-1970’s, for example, approximately 57,000 hunters spent about 274,000 hunter-days persuing snowshoe hares. This effort resulted in an average harvest of about 151,000 hares annually. The 1982 snowshoe harvest numbered 163,755.
Maintenance of quality hare habitat in the state requires forest habitat management. Most snowshoe habitat is maintained by logging activity in the northern forests. These logging practices create young forest stands which the hares prefer. Forest management techniques like aspen vegetation, clear cutting, thinning and selective cutting benefit snowshoe hares.
Snowshoe hares are an important species in Wisconsin not only as a valuable game animal, but also as a vital part of the state’s ecology. The harvest is a very important prey species for most of the mammalian and avian predators within its range. So, fluctuations in hare populations greatly affect these predator species which depend on the hares for their food supply. Harvest trends indicate hare populations fluctuate from low to high numbers every ten years. As a result, predators must shift to alternate food sources regularly or die. Some predator populations tend to rise and fall with the hare populations including Canada lynx and snowy owls. Wildlife Managers continue to monitor these cycles in Wisconsin.