Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus)

The hare is the single most important prey species in the territory. This widespread "rabbit" to most Yukoners and "bunny" to others is bafflingly abundant in peak years. Its range expands across North America inhabiting brushy forests from Alaska to Newfoundland, and south into the mountains of the eastern and western United States.

The Snowshoe Hare population follows an endless 10-year cycle of rising and falling. When scarce hares inhabit pockets of the Yukon, one hare in 50 hectares, yet when they flourish every available space becomes occupied up to four hares in a single hectare. To survive hares eat grasses, buds, bark and have developed two strategies to evade its many hunters. The first is camouflage, whereby this species earns it alternate name of “varying hare”. Twice a year the Snowshoe Hare swops its fur coat to more closely match its surroundings. In winter the hare’s pelage is a snowy-white; as the days lengthen it becomes a rusty or dark brown with hints white and black. Snowshoe hares pack a powerful punch in each leap, and can cover three meters in a single bound. Jumping, zigging and zagging to elude its predators once its detected, it can reach up to 50 km/hr.

Up to four litters between May and September, Yukon Snowshoe Hares have more litters, and more young within each litter on average than their southern relatives. It seems the long days of the North affect hormonal cycles different than a longer summer season, increasing their productivity. The two to three litters following the first litter have lower survival rates as other young predators that have developed through the summer months create greater hunting pressure.

When hares are scarce, other prey are sought by all of the hare hunters. Like a ripple that spreads from a single stone thrown in the water, the good and bad fortunes of the Snowshoe Hare touch every part of the boreal forest ecosystem. When populations of snowshoe hares are good, lynx thrive, coyotes, and birds of prey mirror. Yet, increased predation causes subtle effects on the population and the subsequent low to occur. Increase stress, and lower reproductive rates in the snowshoe hare population that remain, continue to produce low numbers of young, contributing to the delay before the next cyclical boom. Virtually all boreal predators are affected by this keystone species.