Snowshoe Hares in Northern California – a little discovery

If you read my last post, you’ll probably be aware that I was in Northwestern California (Humboldt County) two months ago wildlife viewing. I meant to post this update earlier, but I was quite busy with various things last month so I guess better late than never…

Anyways, while on my trip, one of my most intriguing mammal sightings was that of an adult Klamath SNOWSHOE HARE (Lepus americanus klamathensis) on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. Now, given that Snowshoe Hares are more famous for being an animal of the dark and frigidly cold Northern Boreal Forests of Canada and Alaska, I figured I’d give a bit of background on this animal for California.

Very little information exists on the status of the Snowshoe Hare in California. What we do know is that their range roughly coincides with the three main mountain ranges of the state: the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and the Klamath Mountains. In these areas, there are two main subspecies: the Sierra Nevada Snowshoe Hare (L. a. tahoensis), found in he Central and Northern Sierra; and the Klamath Snowshoe Hare (L. a. klamathensis), found in the higher ranges of the Klamath Mountains (Yolla Bolly, Salmon, Marble, Trinity Alps, and Siskiyou Mountains) and the Cascades (Mt. Lassen, Mt. Shasta region, and the Warner Mountains at the edge of the great basin). Both subspecies are generally thought to be quite rare and little-known and for these reasons they are rated as California Species (or in this case Taxa) of Special Concern.

Both subspecies prefer similar habitats, which unsurprisingly, are also similar to their habitats in their more familiar northern habitats. Snowshoe Hares prefer wet mountain meadows at elevations of around 7000-9000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, as well as mountain fir forests and riverine alder thickets; in the Klamath Mountains, they use very similar habitat, however at lower elevations, extending down to almost 4000 feet due to the increased moisture of this region. The Snowshoe Hares in California are very unique: unlike the famed “Varying Hare” of the northern forests, whose numbers fluctuate enormously year to year in a fixed pattern and undergo a unique dynamic with the Canada Lynx, in California (and other southern areas of the Snowshoe Hare’s range), their populations stay relatively fixed from year to year. For this reason, they remain rare and little known, one of the secret species of California’s mountains – one that few are aware of and even fewer have ever seen.

Now, this brings me to my main point. As many people who know me well are aware of, I enjoy seeing as many of California’s mammal species as I can within this hugely bio-diverse state – the Snowshoe Hare is no exception. However, I wasn’t exactly aware of where to look for it: due to the paucity of data from the Klamath Mountains, I always assumed that they were very rare (as rated by the Dept. of Fish and Game) and restricted to the most inaccessible areas, such as the high country of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. The story was similar in the Sierra too: here, naturalists and field biologists performing camera-trapping studies in the range almost never recorded the rare hares on trail cameras, let alone observed them. So, you could only imagine my surprise when driving down a remote gravel road in a forgotten part of Northern California at dusk, I spotted a large brownish-gray rabbit that I couldn’t immediately identify!

Now, having last seen a Snowshoe Hare around 4 years ago in Alaska, I was admittedly a bit “rusty,” but soon called out the sighting. My guide Rob, who had lived in Northwestern California for the past 10 years (and had seen a large percentage of the region’s mammal fauna) was just as shocked as I was! While I didn’t see very much else that evening, I was quite elated with my hare.

The next day, Rob talked to some biologist friends working in and around the Hoopa area (we observed the hare at the summit of Big Hill Road near an area called ‘Box Camp’ in the red fir zone). Of those, one confirmed the sighting (stating that they were rarely seen in the high red fir forests), but another two was in disbelief (apparently, she needed 10 minutes of convincing before she believed us)! While we was confident with the I.D., we still needed some more confirmation, so we discussed matter with Mark Higley, the chief biologist in the Hoopa Valley, who confirmed our sighting (stating that they were rare, but occasionally seen). Looking back at our sighting, it makes perfect sense – Box Camp is located in moist, cool mountain red fir forests at almost 5000 feet near the Humboldt-Trinity County border; the camp is in a lush mountain meadow bordered in many areas with dense thickets of alder  – perfect, “textbook” Snowshoe Hare habitat! Box Camp, even without the Snowshoe Hare sighting, was already a fascinating place though – in about an hour of searching, I found FISHER sign in the meadow and Mountain Beaver (Aplodontia) burrows in the alder thickets; just three weeks before our trip, a Fisher was observed on a road nearby, and two  weeks after, rare Flammulated and Spotted Owls were seen at the meadow itself as well as numerous Black Bears – a true wildlife hotspot!

Now, back to the Hare. By the end of my trip, the Snowshoe Hare was one of the top wildlife sightings of the trip – alongside Sooty Grouse, Mountain Quail, White-headed Woodpecker, and Northern Flying Squirrel! However, I’ll remember this sighting for more than just that reason… This Snowshoe Hare is a reminder to me that you can’t learn everything, particularly about wildlife and nature by just sitting at home in front of a laptop (granted, you can learn a LOT though!). To unlock some of nature’s true secrets, get out and explore! You never know what you might find…

Venkat

Postscript:

A little while ago, I received an email from Rob telling me that he had just recently seen 2 (!) Snowshoe Hares while on an evening owling trip (during which he saw Nighthawks – jealous!) to the montane birding hotspot Horse Mountain in moist red and white fir habitat at around 4500 feet! I don’t know for sure (it may be a series of remarkable coincidences!!), but I suspect that at least in a select number of places in California’s wild, remote, and untouched Northwest, there may be a few places where this species is a bit less rare than we thought…

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3 thoughts on “Snowshoe Hares in Northern California – a little discovery

  1. Venkat,
    This year the Varying Hare ” hatch ” is incredibly large, I’ve seen these for decades just up river from Hoopa at 2,000-4,500 ft. but never note than 1 or 2 s night, last full moon cycle I counted 9 or 10 on a 8 mile stretch of road ! Lots juvenile females just full grown.
    Never seen Blue Grouse that far North, only Ruffed ? Been Alaska twice, hut only saw first wolverine w/ in 30 miles of where you were. There’s loads of Fischer’s, US Fish & Wildlife imported 100s in 1950s to control Porcupines for supposed timber interests & it worked, theyre nearly extinct compared to 40 years ago when I was a youth there in Burnt Ranch area. Saw a Fisher 2 weeks ago, but they’re far fewer than 1970s. By the way uninformed locals think Varying Hares are Black tailed…Hares ol..Jack rabbits. The Bird Whisperer / Owl activist of Burnt Ranch.

  2. This morning I ws having coffee by my tent at about 10,000ft altitude on the trail between Lyell Canyon and Vogelsang in Yosemite. Up hopped a VERY large hare with silver grey “booties”. I made a joke to myself that the only way to describe this hare to someone is that it could probably wrestle a bear to the ground.
    The hare came from the stream area where wildflowers were still blooming. It (not sure if male or female) crossed the main hiking trail and came towards me, but still at a distance. It finally came to about 20 ft from me, where I was able to get a really good and long look at it. It reminded me more of the size of a a dog – 20 or 30 pounds in weight. Stocky. The hind legs were muscularly well developed. Fairly short ears for its size.
    I don’t know what I saw. It’ll have to be documented as “unverified” because when I stealthily went to get up from my seated position and go for my camera, which was in my tent, when I looked up the hare was gone. There were a couple of animal trails in the immediate area – not usre if one of them was a “bunny trail”.
    Just thought I’d put it out there for biologists stydiying th area.

    • Hi Tom,

      What you saw was most likely a White-tailed Jackrabbit. They are impressively sized, much larger than Snowshoe Hares and as you say, have proportionally small ears. In the summer, they occur in the high elevation meadows and rockpiles such as around Mt. Dana and Lyell Canyon. In spring and winter, they migrate lower down. I’ve seen them in spring in the sagebrush country around Mono Lake, for example. Snowshoe Hares are a fair bit smaller, only a little larger than Cottontails and also have proportionally short ears; they are found in subalpine forests.

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