Winter hunting proves hare-raising

Small creatures are numerous in the Haines area

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2007

I was deer hunting on Douglas Island after an early snowfall last year when I happened upon an inappropriately dressed snowshoe hare.

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This hare was still mostly brown and quite conspicuous against the snow. Snowshoe hares, also called varying hares because they turn white in winter, make a gradual transition from the summer brown-and-gray coat to the winter white. This hare was motionless, but he wasn't blending in with the scenery. Hares can sprint 35 miles an hour and jump 12 feet in a single bound, but their inclination is to hunker down, trusting that their usually excellent camouflage will hide them.

Snowshoe hares are found throughout Alaska. Their population fluctuates widely on a cycle that peaks about every 10 years. It's peaking now in Interior Alaska, and hares are thick. Neil Barten, the state wildlife biologist for the Juneau area, hunted hares last fall south of Delta Junction and said the abundance was remarkable.

"It was 10 below, real calm and cold, and the snow was very crunchy," he said. "If you were walking you didn't see many, because they would hear you and move out ahead, maybe 40 yards in front of you in the low willow brush. But if you stood still and watched while someone else walked, it was incredible. You'd see one, then two, then another - it was like a herd of caribou moving. You'd see them moving, then they'd stop and just disappear, then reappear when they'd move again. It was like a weird movie - all these white hares like ghosts moving and disappearing."

Barten lived in Interior Alaska for many years, and compared the peaking hare population to a salmon stream at the height of the run.

"All the predators are drawn to the scene, and they move in and feed," he said. "There's a lot of food out there for lynx, coyotes and raptors. But in the low years that's pretty hungry country."

Hares are present but not abundant in the Juneau area. Tracks and the occasional hare are seen in the Dredge Lakes area near the Mendenhall Glacier, and near Eagle and Herbert glaciers. The hunting season for hares in Southeast runs from Sept. 1 through April 30, with a bag limit of five. In many parts of the state, however, there is no closed season and no bag limit.

Hares are fairly numerous just north of Juneau in the Haines area. Hares and moose both favor willow, and Barten said last year the hares were taking a toll on the forage.

"The snowshoes were stripping the willows so heavily, I'd think they'd impact the moose," Barten said. "They kill the willow browse."

Barten's colleague, biologist Ryan Scott, said he suspects that Juneau is right on the edge of hares' acceptable habitat.

"It may be a little too wet here, but there are pockets of drier locations with the appropriate quantity and species of browse, which allows the hares to hang on in marginal habitats," he wrote in an e-mail. "It is interesting that only 60 miles north of Juneau in the Chilkat Valley, the hare population is doing well, but it is drier and colder up there with much of the same browse material."

Fish and Game is collecting hare samples around Southeast Alaska, working to learn more about the distribution of hares in Southeast.

• Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He is the editor of "Alaska Fish and Wildlife News" and produces the "Sounds Wild" radio program.

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