A Hoppin’ Year for the Snowshoe Hare by Lisa Densmore
Location: Snowcrest Mountains, MT
It’s a banner year for snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) in Montana’s Snowcrest Mountains. For the last three years, I’ve spent the third week in October in this rugged region of the northern Rockies where elk, deer and moose commonly wander the boreal and montane forests. The snowshoe hares are there, too, but a rare sight. Not this year! While hiking the high country, I twice pushed a snowshoe hare out of his twiggy cover while plopping myself on a random log to rest. It was fun to see them in their newly acquired white phase.
Snowshoe hares are well-known for their rusty brown summer coat which changes to white in the winter. Its ears, which are shorter than other hare species, are another trademark.
Though technically mid-fall, the Snowcrests were already covered with a half-foot of snow and it snowed every day while I was there. While the ungulates kept a low profile, leaving a few rubs on the trees, frozen scat and a depression or two in the snow where they bedded for the day, snowshoe hares trampled the open forests of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine literally everywhere. Their tracks were easy to identify with their large hind feet and small forefeet.
It’s their hind feet which give them their common moniker. Shaped like miniature snowshoes, their oversized back paws allow this shy yet active hopper to stay on top of the snow, a helpful skill when a lynx or a wolf fancies it for dinner. Not surprising, its feet have fur top and bottom to protect them from wintery temperatures. Sometimes I wish my feet had a little more fur on them. My trip to the Snowcrest Range was this year’s first brush with sub-freezing temperatures. Even with toe warmers, my feet were cold.