Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Mammal of the Open Plains

An item from the Fargo Forum of 27 November 1908:

The jackrabbits turned white before the snow came — and made themselves targets for hunters.

Just a filler note, you may say, not a significant contribution to mammalogy — but a note that indicates consciousness of the seasons and of the role of one species in nature as a marker of them. Whitetail jackrabbits turn white with their fall moult. Snowy winter, just like this year, came late in 1908, leaving the rabbits vulnerable.

Now another item, this one from the Jamestown Alert, 5 March 1914:

A sign of spring was noted by the farm people in the changing of the coat of the jackrabbit from white to drab.

In this case, the jackrabbit was a harbinger of hope, a promise that winter would end after all.

There are many ways to explore our checkered environmental history on these Great Plains of North America. One is to take stock of the relationship of our human species with another on the land. The relationships are various and complex. While breaking down a side of venison one early morning in our kitchen, I listened to impassioned pleas on the radio from horse lovers ardent to save the wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park from the misplaced priorities of the National Park Service. Our fellow species interact with us in prosaic ways while at the same time assuming symbolic importance.

I have found puckish delight in promising country visitors to show them the bright lights of Fargo in winter — and then take them on a driving tour around the glowing greenhouses of NDSU. They are surprised and entertained to see the ghostly jackrabbits, which seem attracted to the greenhouses, bounding away over the dark drifts of snow.

The whitetail jackrabbit, Lepus townsendii, has been powerfully affected by Euro-American occupation of its homeland. According to Mammals of the Northern Great Plains, its range used to extend well into Kansas and perhaps farther south. As “a mammal of the open plains,” the authors of this work observe, the whitetails did relatively poorly in the face of expanding field agriculture. Blacktail jackrabbits, which were more at home in wheat stubble, supplanted them in points south of the Platte River.

Mammals of the Great Plains, published in 1982, also factors in “the gradual warming trend of the past century that has allowed for the northward expansion of the black-tailed jackrabbit, essentially a southwestern species.” Forgive me for getting a little wonky, but this statement is striking. Seldom do we hear either naturalists or historians credit the warming of the prairies — which commenced around 1850 or so, as the Little Ice Age came to an indefinite close — as a shaping influence on our history.

The same authors observe, “Whitetailed jackrabbits retreat to the shelter of the edges of woodlots and riparian communities only in the most severe winters.” So, another newspaper clip, from the Bismarck Tribune, 30 March 1897:

The number of jackrabbits on the river bottoms south of this city is remarkable. There are thousands of the light footed creatures — more than ever were seen before.

Because 1897, as stockmen of the time attested, was a rough, rough winter. Whitetail jackrabbits are few in the Flickertail State today, but there is still a relationship worth chronicling and exploring.

Stay Connected
Related Content