Snowshoe Hares + Reflections on a Wilderness Christmas

11,000 feet up in the snowy Colorado mountains, one has his fair share of Christmas trees to choose from.  Mine was fairly scrawny and only came up to about my knees, but it was perfect.  Once I added a small string of battery-powered twinkle lights, voila: my solo trek in Indian Peaks Wilderness on Christmas Eve took on an appropriate amount of festive cheer.  And I didn’t even have to vacuum up any pine needles afterward.

It should be noted that backpacking alone is never a great idea, especially in the winter and especially in the mountainous backcountry.

However, stubborn male pride remains the enemy of most common sense.

“Getting back to nature” is a horribly overused cliché nowadays, but there is something to be said for some outdoor immersion therapy when you’re in need of a little inspiration.  Earlier that morning, I’d set out with just a backpack and my snowshoes, planning to cover 5.5 mostly uphill miles to wait for Santa alongside a pristine sub-alpine lake nestled in a crescent-shaped basin.  Temperatures were in the single digits, the wind roared through the pines, and light snow fell throughout the day, all of which gave me ample opportunity to second-guess my decision to spend my holiday clomping around in the treeline rather than in front of a cozy fire.

As a wildlife lover, I was secretly hoping the trip would provide an opportunity to spot a really cool animal or two along the way.  A moose, perhaps, or possibly an elk.  Maybe even a black bear still awake before hibernation.  Sadly, none of those prized megafauna crossed my path.  But then, right about the time that I was totally exhausted from climbing through two-foot deep powder with oversized paddles attached to my feet, I saw the snowshoe hare.

To call this hare a mere “bunny” would be demeaning, for it was larger and taller than any pet store rabbit I’d ever seen.  The hare easily bounded across the same deep snow that I was struggling in, stretching itself out to full length with every leap and covering 50 yards in an instant.  The hare’s white fur against a white background made it appear as though the animal were simply a glitch in the matrix that appeared ever so briefly and then vanished.

OK, so what, you might ask.  A hare in a forest is not exactly National Geographic material.  But sometimes, it takes seeing something you’re not expecting to remind you how much there is to know about interconnected forest ecosystems.  I admit I hadn’t given much thought to white rabbits outside of Alice in Wonderland, but after seeing this particular one flash across my path, I started wondering more about them.  How do they jump so well in soft powder?  How far do they range? And how do they outwit predators in the summer months?

After returning from the woods, I decided I’d look into it.  As it turns out, snowshoe hares have some fascinating biological traits, but primarily rely on seasonally adaptive camouflage.  Each year, their lustrous white winter coats fade to a dusty brown in the spring, a neat trick for avoiding predators.  Somehow, it had escaped me all these years that the rabbits’ molt was so chameleon-like.

But here’s the problem: the hare’s color switch is light dependent while the snow cover is weather dependent.   As the days get reliably shorter and the rabbit’s coat turns white, it’s crucial that the snowfall cooperate as well.  Otherwise, in abnormally dry winters, you end up with a lot of white rabbits on brown backgrounds—easy pickings for predators such as wolves, coyotes, and hawks.

Thus, as NPR reported back in September, climate change could spell trouble for hares in that regard.  Warmer winters and a shorter snowfall season will extend the period of time that the rabbits are mismatched with their environment.  That’s great news for predators in the short term, but bad news in the long term if the hare population were to crash across large sections of the upper Midwest and the Mountain West.  For example, snowshoe hares are the entrée of choice for the endangered Canadian lynx, a species without much margin for error.

Given their prolific reproduction rates and widely dispersed range across the northern U.S., it’s unlikely that the snowshoes will be pushed to the brink anytime soon.  But the hare population does have a highly cyclical nature and it’s possible that those lows could get lower in the years to come absent a large-scale evolutionary adaptation.  The NPR article notes that some snowshoes in Washington state do not turn white at all, a mutation that could ultimately prevail in a warmer world.

Anyway, there you have it – a bit of unexpected knowledge following a snowy Christmas in the forest.  You never quite know when adventure will inform science, and vice versa.

See you in 2014.

Trent Knoss is the digital editor at Backpacker Magazine and lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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