Snowy winter helps snowshoes

Northwoods Notebook

Snowshoe hares will likely get a boost from conditions this past winter that hampered predators. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photos)

This past long and snowy winter in the Upper Peninsula may have proven to be a plus for one species that had been slipping in the region: the snowshoe hare.

While no actual count has been done, anecdotal reports and observations indicate the big-footed hares didn’t just survive but thrived under such conditions, said Bill Scullon, field operations manager for the wildlife division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A severe winter that challenges other creatures gives the hares an edge — snow cover early and late in the season keeps them from being vulnerable while in their white coats, the well-furnished feet allow them to get traction on the snow surface when other animals have to wade through the drifts and they can access vegetation deer can’t reach, providing less competition for food.

The hares will skip across the snow while a number of its predators might bog down or simply miss it against the white backdrop. Some predator numbers, too, have been down in the region, especially for fisher, the large brown member of the weasel family that is well suited for hunting snowshoes even in winter.

It all adds up to a year in which the hares have fared well — and likely will make the most of it this summer, said Gary Roloff, an associate professor with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Like several other northern species, such as snowy owls and arctic fox, snowshoe hares can respond to ideal conditions by cranking out bigger litters, plus they have the added advantage of being able to have multiple litters in a summer, said Roloff, who has studied the species in northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

Having that ability to reproduce often and in volume helps offset the losses for what Roloff called “the potato chip of the woods.”

Any predator roughly the same size or larger as the hares will try to take them if they can catch them — raptors like red-tailed and goshawks, great-horned owls, virtually all of the weasel family, the wild canines such as coyotes and fox, and bobcats, Roloff said. The Canadian lynx is a snowshoe specialist, as well adapted to the boreal forest as they are, whose fortunes can rise and fall with the snowshoe population.

Which might be why fisher have been fewer and lynx almost non-existent in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin. The snowshoe hare hasn’t done well with climate change, Roloff said.

His studies have indicated the hares need dense cover, particularly in winter, and forests that have more conifers than deciduous trees. If the deer population is high, they often browse down that cover, leaving the hares more exposed to predators.

They also have more competition from their cottontail rabbit cousins, which with human settlements and milder winters have moved into some areas that had been snowshoe country. Roloff said if he sees cottontails in an area he’s studying, he figures the snowshoes are on their way out.

Snowshoes do go through natural 10-year population cycles, but Roloff believes this combination of warmer conditions and loss of ground cover likely accounts for the hare’s decline in Michigan.

But he does believe proper forest management, to preserve some areas of dense cover such as forest bogs, could help offset the effects of the climate shift and allow the hares to hang on in the region.

Scullon agrees, adding that the humans who like to hunt hare need to do their homework on those types of habitat the snowshoes prefer to have success.

If they do, “there should be abundant opportunity for those who pursue hares,” Scullon said.

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Scullon also mentioned a reminder that the Upper Peninsula DNR Listening Session on proposed deer regulation changes will be 2 to 4 p.m. Eastern time June 10 in the Turtle Room at the Island Conference Center in Harris in Menominee County.

Several hunting regulation changes have been recommended by the DNR, including a deer baiting and feeding ban in the Core Chronic Wasting Disease Surveillance Area, which includes portions of Menominee, Dickinson and Delta counties.

Comments will be recorded and provided to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, which is expected to render a decision in July on the DNR’s recommendations. NRC Commissioner Dave Nyberg is scheduled to attend the Harris session, along with Chad Stewart of the DNR’s Wildlife Division.

Previous sessions took place in May in Hermansville, Houghton and Lansing. The public also can provide input by email at NRC@michigan.gov or by mailing to Michigan Natural Resources Commission, P.O. 30028, Lansing, MI 48909-7528.

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The spring migration should wind down this week, as birds shift from getting back on territories to nesting. Most waterfowl that breed in the region already have the first brood hatched, as do some of the early migrant songbirds such as robins.

Noteworthy this week was the appearance of a male lazuli bunting at a feeding station at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Chippewa County, adjacent to the Whitefish Point Unit of the Seney National Wildlife Refuge.

This bird is similar to our indigo bunting in size and shape, but colored more like the Eastern bluebird, with sky-blue back and head and an orange breast on breeding males. It is a strictly western and southwestern species that normally can’t be seen further east than Nebraska and the Dakotas.

But this has been a spectacular year for birds deciding to go wandering, with all kinds of oddities turning up in unexpected places. Nice of this one to pick a site where it was sure to be noticed.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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