Jack rabbit surprises


A small mention in a column in my local newspaper last week sent me scurrying to Google and other databases to find out more. The topic? A recent decline in the black-tailed jack rabbit (Lepus californicus) population.  Okay, it’s not that I’ve ever been all that interested in jack rabbits, though now I’m kind of ashamed of that.  I took them for granted, as do (I imagine) most people who spend any time in the desert, sagebrush, or any of the 21 other Western ecosystems where they live.  Though decent-sized and distinctive with their long, thin legs and comically big ears, they’ve always just been an ordinary feature of the landscape. But it does seem, once I actually thought about it, that there are fewer of them around these days, at least in my usual stomping grounds.

Turns out, populations in Washington State have dipped so low that they may be listed soon as threatened or endangered. The decline was shrugged off at first, due to prevailing theories that sharp increases and decreases in number are normal.  Most Westerners, including me, can remember periods where the hares seemed to be everywhere you looked, so the “boom and bust” explanation rang true for scientist and layperson alike. While there appears to be little hard data for other states, and some areas still have plenty, ecologists have gathered considerable anecdotal evidence about their disappearance from around the West.

As of yet, no single reason for the decline has emerged -- it could be one or more of the usual suspects (drought, fire, predation, habitat loss, disease) or something new. The jury’s still out, and likely will be for some time.

In the meantime, we might learn to better appreciate the funny-looking creatures who are, after all, Western icons, and rightly so. They’re tough, efficient, and adaptable. Did you know they can even eat cactus? Sage? Tamarisks? I didn’t. 

They’re also among the first animals to return to fire-scarred terrain, eating new grasses and helping with seed dispersal. Of course, they’re also a valuable food source for raptors, coyotes, and mountain lions. Because they’re not as fluffy as baby seals or as majestic as elephants they probably won’t attract passionate celebrity spokespersons or non-profits dedicated to their survival, like those species have. It’s too bad that, save a few intrepid wildlife biologists, no one’s paid much attention to the fate of these quiet, no-nonsense animals. It’s time we do. 

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image of jack rabbit courtesy Flickr user Ed Schipul.

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