Receding hare line

by Jerry Engler

What happened to the once-abundant jack rabbits that populated this area?

The early settlers talked of the large herds of bison, but surely they were rivaled by the thousands and millions of jack rabbits on the prairies.

Persons 50 and older still have memories of great coyote and jack-rabbit hunts in this area. Participants would circle several sections of land and drive the animals to a gathering point in the center. Killing usually was done with shotguns or clubs.

Virgil Weber of Marion said he remembered great piles of hundreds of jack rabbits after one such hunt.

Fred Helmer, Marion, said that in the last big hunt he participated in over several sections in the Youngtown area, the hunters were told to take only coyotes and leave the jack rabbits alone because of declining numbers. He believes that was in the 1950s.

Don Rogers, Rocky Hett and Bill Burton, all of Marion, remembered hunters selling jack rabbits for 10 to 25 cents each to be processed for “mink meal” on mink farms in western areas like around Pratt and Stafford. Burton said the jacks were also sent out by boxcar to mink farms in Minnesota.

Hett said jack rabbits seemed to decline from disease about the time of his high-school graduation in 1962.

A woman in the Topeka area told of sending barrels of dressed and salted jack rabbits to relatives in Illinois.

It sounds as if jack rabbits were hunted to the brink of extinction like the buffalo. But there’s more to the story. Jack rabbits here now face more subtle conditions that also threaten game birds like pheasant and quail.

Days gone by

Hunting rabbits today is limited in Kansas. The state lumps jacks and cottontails together in a year-round season with a combined daily limit of 10 and possession of 30.

Jack rabbits are still abundant in western Kansas, but even there the numbers aren’t what they used to be.

Verda Albrecht of Hillsboro said her family still sees many jacks while custom cutting wheat in the Tribune area.

Paul Jantzen, a retired high-school biology teacher at Hillsboro, recalled that on his first teaching job in Larned, when he and his wife would travel home after visiting family in Moundridge, “There was a 20-mile stretch of straight highway where we would stay awake at night keeping track of the number of jack rabbits running down the road.”

Eugene Steiner of Hillsboro said he and his brothers shot large numbers of jacks in the 1940s on and around the family farm at Durham. A favorite hunting spot was a large cornfield south of Durham where he counted 150 jack rabbits at one time.

The Steiner brothers sold the pelts for $1.25 to $1.75 a pound, with an average four pelts per pound, to the M-Lylon Fur Co. out of Missouri. Steiner said most of the carcasses were fed for meat meal to the family’s chickens.

He said he learned to let dogs run the rabbits out of a field and then watch, because the jacks usually returned to the field at the point where they left.

Jack rabbits could be seen sitting and running in large numbers across pastures and fields, and in large groups against barriers such as the snow fences in western Kansas in wintertime. The great abundance seems to have lasted into the 1950s, with the numbers beginning to dwindle during the 1960s.

Varying experiences

The decline isn’t necessarily due to settlement by people, because most reports note that jack rabbits adapt readily to the proximity of people.

Max Terman, a biologist at Tabor College who specialized in mammalogy, said the last jack rabbit he saw was “five or six years ago while playing (golf in) Wichita.”

Tom Halstead, a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife extension specialist stationed at Kansas State University, told a similar story. He last sighted a jack rabbit at the Wichita airport.

Terman recalled the explosive speed of the jack rabbit.

“You’d see one sitting real tight against the edge of a shrub or clump of grass, then he’d bolt,” he said. “I’d guess a jack would hit 40 to 50 miles an hour, and they’d jump high when they ran.”

A national truck-driving magazine reports the height of those jumps still causes problems for drivers where jacks are still more abundant. A truck can hit an eight-pound jack off the radiator or into a windshield.

Local people recall chasing jack rabbits with automobiles down dirt roads because the big rabbits would run at high speed straight in front of the car rather than darting like the smaller cottontail rabbit.

Today, sightings of jack rabbits are few and far between, but most come from the Durham or Lincolnville areas. It’s still enough of a thrill for a local farmer such as Larry Olsen, from west of Marion, to come in and announce, “Hey, I saw a jack rabbit today.”

Different species

Most of the rabbits in this area are cottontails. They are true rabbits, while the jack rabbit is actually a hare.

A book about the mammals of Kansas reports the state at one time had five animals the people would call rabbits: the white-tailed jack rabbit or Lepus townsendi, the black-tailed jack rabbit or Lepus californicus, the Eastern cottontail or Sylvilogus floridanus, the desert cottontail or Sylvilagus audubonni, and the swamp rabbit or Sylvilagus aquaticus.

The white-tailed jack was found more from Northwest Kansas to the mountains of Colorado, while the black-tailed jack lived here and throughout the Southwest.

Both jacks turn color like their cousin, the snowshoe, for winter; the white-tailed nearly white and the black-tailed gray. The black tail is known to be so adaptable that in some parts of the Southwest where overgrazing disrupted native rabbits, the black-tailed jack replaced them.

The John Hopkins University Press publication notes that hares- including the jacks from California through Kansas-could sustain pressures such as hunting and still stay abundant because the females could have up to three or four litters annually with up to six babies per litter.

“Young hares are born in an open place…in contrast to rabbits, the young are well furred at birth, their eyes are open, and they can move about shortly thereafter with only visits by the female for nursing.”

The state of California estimates that 2 million jack rabbits are still taken by hunters there annually.

According to Missouri estimates, the cottontail rabbit produces up to seven litters a year with up to a third of the first-litter females producing a litter of their own in the season they were born. But the cottontail still needs to build a nest and care for the developing young.

The black-tailed jack has the speed of maturity by a month old, Terman said, joining a hare communication network that warns of danger with tooth grinding and foot thumping.

Hares are so successful that they can almost take over areas where they are introduced, such as in Australia.

So why don’t they come back in Kansas?

Jantzen said he isn’t an expert on the subject, but he read in a publication from the University of Kansas Natural History Museum that population fluctuations of jack rabbits are common, and it’s probably due to a reduction in the acreage of the native prairie by agriculture.

From the 1960s on, especially in the short-grass prairies of western Kansas, more land was tilled for grain crops, and the jacks don’t adapt well to grain crops.

Terman agreed the switch from prairie to cultivation is the primary reason the white-tail is nearly extinct from here to the mountains. He added that factors that can normally fluctuate populations, such as deaths during a frigid winter or seasons of heavy rain, can reduce the same population to critical stages when habitat also disappears. Terman guessed that hunting would only have a drastic effect when it was added in with these other factors.

Comeback possible?

According to some experts, one extensive area of prairie seems ready for a jack-rabbit comeback: the Kansas Flint Hills. But these same people speculate the rabbits might not come back there because of herbicides or some diseases.

Terman said the jack rabbit would have difficulty coming back to the Flint Hills because of the incursion of shrubs and trees into the area since early times-another habitat change.

The jack rabbit, he said, “is an animal of the open areas.”

Mike Mitchener, private land coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks at Pratt, confirmed Terman’s explanation for the Flint Hills, but added more subtleties.

He said the jack rabbit was a creature of the open short-grass prairie, where it could see dangers far away and respond with its great speed to escape.

Mitchener said the people who have lived their lives here have seen the countryside change not only to more shrubs and trees, but taller trees-and that’s not the kind of place a jack rabbit wants to be. Such surroundings actually stress the jacks. To be in an area of tall trees makes them nervous, he said.

The same people who recall the big jack-rabbit hunts usually don’t understand that they lived on the edge of jack-rabbit territory with periods of drought that brought the jacks into tall-grass territory.

“The Flint Hills historically are not a real stronghold for jacks,” Mitchener said. “It was specific to a few years of drought making it more favorable to short grass.

“The amount of annual burning in the Flint Hills nowadays (done to enhance grazing for cattle) doesn’t lend itself well to the jacks either,” he added. “Burning causes changes in vegetation favoring tall grasses over short grasses, and tending toward a decline in forbes. It’s become an environment of woody draws and forested creek bottoms. The trees weren’t so tall 50 and 60 years ago.”

Added to this, Mitchener said, are factors farther west that decimate jack-rabbit populations in Kansas so the numbers aren’t there anymore for incursions into the east.

“There’s not as much fallow wheat ground used in rotation because of chemical treatment,” he said.

When ground was left fallow (not planted for a year for weed and moisture control), there was a cover of straw and vegetation left for jack rabbits and birds. Now chemicals keep the land clean and in production, he said.

Other animals affected

Mitchener said the same change in fallowing ground is reducing numbers of pheasant and quail. Chemical treatments, burning and mowing are reducing cover farther east.

He said that if farmers in this area want to keep pheasants and quail, they need to start now by leaving strips of weeds for cover and food around crops, and by planting such permanent cover as plum thickets.

“The chemical effects of herbicides now days aren’t really that toxic to critters,” Mitchener said.

He said the persistent toxic chemicals that once hurt wildlife, such as DDT and heptachlor, aren’t allowed anymore.

“Modern chemicals hurt more by eliminating broad-leaf weeds for food, a secondary effect.”

Jack-rabbit declines have nothing to do with increased numbers of predators like bobcats either, Mitchener said.

“There’s no silver bullet to explain the decline, but it’s lots and lots of different things that add up to habitat change,” he said. “There were lots of quail and prairie chicken 25 to 35 years ago with no turkeys and very few deer. Change is slow.

“Deer and turkeys are successful in the new habitats, and jack rabbits, quail and prairie chicken are in decline.”

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