GUEST POST: The Snowshoe Hare is Pennsylvania’s Polar Bear

Ed Zygmunt was named the National Wildlife Federation’s 2007 Affiliate Volunteer of the Year for his advocacy on climate change and other critical environmental issues affecting America’s sportsmen and women. He served as an aide to former U.S. Representative Christopher Carney, where he handled natural resource, recreational and agricultural issues in the Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district and was also employed as a Chesapeake Bay technician at the Wyoming County Conservation District. Ed attributes his passion for wildlife conservation directly to the many wonderful years he has enjoyed as a hunter and angler in Penn’s Woods.

Pennsylvania Sportsman, Ed Zygmunt
I am winding down my 44th season as a hunter in Penn’s Woods. One of the animals that I have been so passionate about over these many years is the magnificent snowshoe hare. I guess my addiction started at the age of eleven when my father took me hare hunting in a remote swamp of Luzerne county. I remember that day like it was yesterday. My father spotted a hare hiding under a blueberry bush. He quietly handed me his shotgun and after taking the shot made me crawl through the thick brush to retrieve my first snowshoe.

The animal was so long and lanky that its large hind feet touched the ground while its front feet almost reached up to my beltline. When I saw my first snowshoe I thought I had seen a ghost. Its pure white fur was like no other mammal I had ever seen.

I have not missed a season of hare hunting since that memorable day. To me they are the ultimate symbol of wild and wilderness remaining in one of the country’s most populated states. You could say the snowshoe hare is Pennsylvania’s polar bear. I would bet that only a minuscule fraction of Pennsylvanians have ever seen a snowshoe-or even know they exist in our state.

In the past few years, however, I have taken to hunting hares with a camera. I now have this terrible fear of shooting the last snowshoe to survive in its southern-most range. In the years that I hunted them with a gun, I estimate that I have taken well over 100 hares in northeastern Pennsylvania, many of them in their prime habitat located in the Pococo plateau. Here the average elevation is about 2,000 feet above sea level. In my younger days we hunted the mountainous corners of Luzerne and Lackawanna counties at an elevation of about 1,200 feet. But by the early 80’s, hares became almost impossible to find in this area. So when I began hunting hares in the higher elevations of the Poconos, I found them in relative abundance. I remember in 1986 two of my friends, one beagle, and I harvested 14 hares. We probably saw over 20 altogether in the course of that one week season.

A Personal Search

(NPS Photo/Jacob W. Frank)
On the last day of 2011 an unexplained internal force made me go back to this area, as it does every year, to check on the status of the hare population. Conditions were perfect for a hare hunter, but unfortunately not for a snowshoe hare. The ground was devoid of the hare’s number one protection from predators: snow. On snow-less terrain a snow-white hare sticks out like Rudolph’s red nose. In conditions like this when hare populations are “normal” I usually have no trouble spotting one laying motionless.

I took my GPS with me even though I know the swamps in this region in and out. My GPS told me that I was nearly two miles from my car, so I am certain the Bender receives little to no hunting pressure (nobody is crazy enough like me to crawl through this tangle of spruces, blueberry bushes, hard-hack, interspersed with pockets of water that can fill your knee-high boots when least expected). Well, after better part of the day trying to locate a snowshoe, I am saddened to report that I did not find even one. I could cry. I only found a few pieces of scat to tell me at least a couple may still be surviving.

Throughout my 44 years of pursuing the snowshoe hare in the Keystone state, I have witnessed their populations in a slow and steady decline. I am no professional wildlife biologist, but my experience as a woodsman sadly causes me to make a dire prediction: the snowshoe hare will become extirpated from Penns Woods within the next couple of decades.

Why? Well, I have my suspicion. Back in the 90’s the PA Game Commission conducted a study of the snowshoe hare. One of their conclusions pointed to climate change as one of the factors that could adversely affect the survival of the hare in PA. I agree with this assessment and would add that the hares vulnerability to predators in a warming climate could mean their ultimate demise. It is hard to believe that in the course of one human lifetime, a magnificent animal like the snowshoe hare could so drastically decline. My young grandson will probably never experience the thrill of seeing his first snowshoe hare as I did over four decades ago. It makes me wonder what wildife species will be next.

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