Admiring (and Chasing) the Aptly Named Snowshoe Hare
With its gigantic, fuzzy feet and snow-white coat, it didn’t take much creativity to name the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus). This interesting little mammal is a dweller of northern boreal forests and high-elevation mountain ranges. Being at the bottom of the food chain, they can be very crafty and are extremely agile. If you’ve never encountered them before or just want to learn more, this is the article for you.
Description and Life History of the Snowshoe Hare
This member of the rabbit family is larger than a typical cottontail rabbit, measuring about 20 inches long and weighing about 3 to 4 pounds on average (Minnesota DNR 2019; National Geographic 2019), but may get larger in northern latitudes. During late spring, summer, and early fall, the fur on their bodies is generally grayish or rusty brown, and their long ears have black tips. But as winter sets in and the photoperiod (daylight length) changes, they shed their summer coat and get a snow-white one in return. This adaptation helps them disappear in the snowy conditions they live in, and it may take up to 10 weeks to fully change color (National Geographic 2019). They also have longer hind legs than cottontails, allowing them to leap up to 12 feet (7x their body length) in a single bound (Minnesota DNR 2019). But of course, their most famous adaptation involves their feet. They have exceptionally long feet with large, furry toes, which spreads their weight out and acts like a snowshoe to keep them on top of the snow surface. When you live in places with accumulated snow measured in feet, that’s an important survival tactic.
Snowshoe hares have home ranges that vary in size; males tend to have larger home ranges (up to 24 acres) than females (only a few acres) (NatureServe 2019). They start to mate in mid-winter (February) and can continue through August. Because of this long timeframe, they may produce 1 to 4 litters a year, each consisting of about 3 young (called leverets) (NatureServe 2019; National Geographic 2019). Females generally nest in a small depression in thick grass or under a shrub/conifer tree with low-hanging boughs. Their young are precocial (can run about minutes after birth and feed themselves) and they are fully weaned within a month. Snowshoe hare populations tend to ebb and flow on a 10-year cycle, which also affects the predators that rely on them – most famously, the Canada lynx.
Throughout the year, the diet of a snowshoe hare changes dramatically. During the summer, they graze on grasses, clover, flowering plants (forbs), or ferns. But when the ground gets covered in snow, they resort to browsing on young tender stems (e.g., aspen, birch, dogwoods, etc.), buds, bark, or even their own feces (Minnesota DNR 2019).
Being at the bottom of the food chain, there are many predators looking to make a meal out of a snowshoe hare. Their fast and efficient reproductive cycle helps ensure there are many more hares to compensate for that. As mentioned, the Canada lynx is a well-known predator that specializes in hunting snowshoe hares. But bobcats, foxes, coyotes, wolves, fishers, martens, and several avian raptor species all prey on them as well (Minnesota DNR 2019).
Range and Habitat of the Snowshoe Hare
While there are a few different subspecies in Western states, the regular snowshoe hare has by far the widest distribution. It occurs across most of the northern half of North America, from coast to coast. They occupy all of Canada, Alaska, and the northern half of the U.S. There are also populations within the Rocky Mountains down to New Mexico or in the Appalachian Mountains down to Virginia.
As mentioned, they are specialists of the northern boreal forests. Snowshoes prefer dense coniferous or mixed forests, but will use many different habitats. For example, they may browse in young forest areas with lots of available food, occupy alder swamps and spruce bogs, hide under young spruce trees in old fields, or live in mature conifer forests with lots of woody debris as cover (NatureServe 2019). Because they are so preyed upon, abundant understory cover is critical to their survival.
Conservation Issues for the Snowshoe Hare
The snowshoe hare is common throughout their primary range in North America. They are listed as globally secure and of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List (NatureServe 2019). On the southern fringe of their range, however, they do face some challenges. For example, populations have declined in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, where habitat quality has slowly dwindled (NatureServe 2019). This is due primarily to loss of cover because of forests maturing, making diverse and healthy forests important for many species besides upland birds. In areas with high deer densities, there can also be competition for winter food resources (i.e., browse), which degrades the cover and overall habitat for hares. Snowshoes are also affected by tularemia, which is a disease caused by a bacterium transmitted by ticks. To be safe, you should wear gloves while handling and field dressing hares and ensure you cook them thoroughly to kill any potential bacteria.
Hunting Opportunities for the Snowshoe Hare
Like the Eastern gray squirrel, many more people used to hunt rabbits in general than do today. It’s probably even less so with snowshoe hares since their range is restricted to northern forests. But that can be good news for the small game hunter. In the upper Midwest, for example, one might occasionally bump into another upland hunter on public land, but it’s pretty rare to find someone specifically hunting snowshoes.
Snowshoe hare hunting is pretty minimalistic when it comes to gear. As long as you have some good boots, warm clothes, and a firearm, you’re good to go. If you’re hunting late in the season, some gaiters are nice to keep the snow from soaking your pant legs, or you might use snowshoes yourself if it’s too deep. But I’ve hunted plenty of snowshoes just with blue jeans and boots. For firearms, you have two basic choices. You could use a .22 caliber rimfire rifle and hope for a hare that actually holds still – but hares tend to run more instead of using their camouflage like rabbits do. Because of that, a shotgun is usually a better choice. You can use anything from a 12-gauge down to a .410 to effectively hunt them.
When it comes to hunting tactics, it’s also pretty simple. Focus your search on high quality areas, such as habitat edges between mature forest and young forest, alder swamp and old field, etc. As a bonus, these same areas often hold a lot of ruffed grouse or woodcock, so you can experience a true mixed bag hunt given the appropriate hunting seasons overlap (they usually do). As you walk along, it helps to pause often, which unnerves the hares and forces them to flush from cover. When you come across clumps of brush or young spruce trees with lots of lower boughs, occasionally kick the vegetation, which might be hiding a hare. If you’re hunting with a trained dog, finding the hares can be easier. But you also have to be extra cognizant of where you’re shooting since you’re aiming at the ground and your dog could be in hot pursuit.
In thick grass or shrub cover, you might not get much of a shooting opportunity until later in the season when the grass has laid down and the leaves are gone. But later in the season is usually a more enjoyable and better time to hunt anyway. The weather is colder, which means you don’t sweat as much while tromping around. Most deer and grouse hunters are done for the season, so you can access large public areas in solitude. Early season rabbits and hares are usually loaded with fleas, but they seem to die off or go dormant later in the season. And one of the best times to hunt snowshoe hares is a warm spell during the late season. If the snow melts and the forest again turns brown, the snowshoe’s white coat stands out like a beacon. If you have snowshoe hares near you and haven’t tried hunting them before, put this one on your list for next season.
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.