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Once plentiful, Iowa jack rabbits now scarce

February 02, 2010 at 01:58 PM

As a signature inhabitant of the open prairie, the white-tailed jackrabbit maintains a unique and historic niche on the North Iowa landscape.  Unlike the more familiar cottontail, the ’jack really isn’t a rabbit at all, but is rather the state’s only native species of wild hare.

Brown in summer, white in winter, the jackrabbit is well adapted to remaining invisible to predators, including to its chief enemy the coyote.  Virtually weatherproof in winter, jackrabbits typically live life in the open where they fashion small depressions to lie in.  The effective, surround view perspective makes it virtually impossible for predators to put the sneak on resting jacks.  Highly resourceful, jacks will occasionally excavate makeshift snow caves on the lee side of drifting snow.  But unless the weather really gets tough, the impressive 8 to 9 pound adults are more likely to be seen sitting in front of rather than inside their caves.  Even as howling January winds plunged the chill index into negative double digits this hardy jackrabbit, photographed near Ventura, was perfectly content to relax in the open air.  When it comes to coping with the elements, they just don’t come any tougher than this.

But extreme changes in land use are one thing that jackrabbits have not been able to cope with.  During the 1960s, white-tailed jackrabbits sometimes attained population densities exceeding 100 animals per square mile, while populations of up to 30 per square mile were not uncommon.  Mirroring the dramatic reduction in Iowa’s oats, alfalfa, and pasture habitats, jackrabbits have all but disappeared from much of their former range.  No jackrabbits were observed during the DNR’s statewide 2008 August Roadside Game Survey, and only one jackrabbit was seen during the 2009 survey.

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