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The snowshoe hare is a widespread North American hare species that inhabits northern boreal and upper montane forests. Their “snowshoe” namesake come from having very large hind feet that have adapted to prevent them from sinking into the deep snow of their preferred habitats. Snowshoe hares rely on dense shrub understory for food and cover, and they serve as a keystone prey item for Canada lynx.
Like many wildlife species, snowshoe hares are affected by climate change and habitat development. While their numbers remain strong across norther North America, their distribution in the contiguous 48 United States has been slowly shrinking, leading to complete extirpation in some areas including the 9,150-acre Sandhill State Wildlife Area (Sandhill Area) in central Wisconsin. With snow melting off earlier in the year, the white fur of the snowshoe hare left them more vulnerable to predators.
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By the early 1990s, snowshoe hares had vanished from the Sandhill area, followed by population declines and shifts in demographics of other species in the area – notably ruffed grouse and porcupine. Biologists hypothesized that the absence of snowshoe hares notably increased predation on other species, but monitoring was conducted at the time of hare extirpation. Therefore, to test their hypothesis, snowshoe hares were reintroduced into the Sandhill Area to evaluate the effects on ruffed grouse and porcupine populations.
In 2015, biologists began radio-tracking porcupines to study their habits, habitat use, and predation levels. In 2017, 100 snowshoe hares were reintroduced to the Sandhill Area.
Post-hare reintroduction, predation on adult porcupine changed little; however, juvenile porcupine predation decreased by 40 percenti. Adult predation was likely unchanged due to the fact that adult porcupine are formidable prey, but in the absence of hares, juvenile porcupine are an easier target. This may be justified by the fact that of the 100 hares released, only 20 remained at the end of the study year.
Ruffed grouse told a different story as their predation rates were also unchanged, but most likely due to owls being a primary predator of grouse but not the porcupine.