Reflecting Sandpoint's beautiful place in the world since 1990.

Winter Shade of Hare

From the Winter 2017 Issue

They’re the ones wearing white after Labor Day, the iconic snowshoe hares of North Idaho – and northern latitudes. But lately, the bunnies’ white phase has arrived well before winter’s first lasting snows and lingered weeks longer than the spring snowpack essential to their disappearing act.

Sandpoint’s Gary Payton started noticing the pops – or hops – of white at mid-elevations a few springs back. The snow was gone, but the hares were still white.

“These animals have evolved over centuries so their hair color changes from winter to summer, from white to brown, to provide them with camouflage,” he said.

But global warming is quickly changing the equation, stranding white hares in brown and green forests, sometimes for weeks before their outfits change for the season.

They’re not the only critters struggling to adapt to climate change, just some of the easiest to spot. They’re also among the few species that biologists have already studied for the impacts of climate change. A team of researchers from the University of Montana and North Carolina State University just published a study of 186 snowshoe hares in western Montana.

It’s a costly fashion blunder, wearing white after the melt, the scientists found. For every week a hare didn’t match its surroundings, the chance of predation increased by as much as 7 percent. Lynx and coyotes are particularly fond of a rabbit dinner.

And that’s bad news if biologists are right in predicting that, by 2100, hares could be a mismatch for as many as eight weeks yearly.

Biologists hope that hares can evolve to molt later in the fall and earlier in the spring. The unknown is how quickly they can adapt. Yet some researchers think hares may move to colder, snowier climes. Prime habitat is moving north at a rate of 5.5 miles per decade.

–Sherry Devlin

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