© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Grand Jackrabbit Hunt

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that one way to approach our environmental history on the Great Plains is to look at our human relationship with another species. I suggested the whitetail jackrabbit as a case study.

Jackrabbits assumed iconic importance on the northern plains on account of our preoccupation with the weather; their color changes symbolized the changing of the seasons. At the same time, pioneering prairie folk, although not necessarily enthusiastic about the culinary merits of jackrabbits, did consume them, often as a social ritual, a lark.

Come the twentieth century the country was undergoing a quickening, with definite implications for jackrabbits, as producers in a more populated landscape undertook active hostilities against them. It was no longer a matter of a bachelor homesteader knocking off a bunny for a lonely stew, or a few young swains roaming the countryside with rifles. Already in the 1890s, with rising jackrabbit populations, organized community hunts commenced.

In early 1894 organizers in Cooperstown called for “a grand jackrabbit hunt” by teams, with the losers to treat the winners to an oyster supper and the jackrabbit flesh “to be sent to an eastern city to help feed the poor.” We’ll eat oysters, in other words, and the poor folk get the rabbits.

A year later farmers in Cypress Township, Cavalier County, formed teams to shoot 250 jackrabbits, followed by a dinner and a dance. Rabbit was not served. A reporter noted that “a good marksman” led each team, which reminds us these early hunts involved rifles and shotguns, which seems like a perilous proposition — but in these years I find only one report of a person wounded by gunfire on a rabbit hunt.

Fall of 1901 the Indians at Standing Rock also reported a “grand jackrabbit hunt” with a mixed bag of cottontails and jackrabbits served to the annual YMCA dinner. I’m guessing they ate the cottontails and otherwise disposed of the jackrabbits.

At the same time, with urban growth to the east, there was burgeoning demand for jackrabbit carcasses. In 1900 the Bismarck butcher George Gussner advertised to buy “1,000 jack-rabbits — nicely dressed.” In coming years there were many shipments of jackrabbit carcasses from country points in North Dakota to buyers in Minneapolis — such as the 700 pounds of dressed rabbits shipped packed in boxes from Mott in February 1913 by Joe McGrath. He said it was fun hunting the critters, and he made good money. Reporters’ predictions of a burgeoning industry in rabbit meat were exaggerated.

This was, however, a time of expanding and industrializing agriculture, and agricultural tolerance of hungry competitors in the landscape was diminishing. Calls for community rabbit hunts began to present a rationale of pest control.

I was all well and good when farmers in the Mouse River Valley went out over Christmas 1914 to shoot 101 jackrabbits for the Salvation Army to distribute to the poor of Minot. The fellows over at Dogden that year, so a reporter said, were more clear-eyed: they “made it a business to exterminate the jack-rabbits.”

That verb, “exterminate,” reflects the pest-control imperatives of a commercializing agriculture. The 25 cents per carcass received on a shipment to Minneapolis was inconsiderable.

Scientific farming, too, called for incorporation of legumes into crop rotations. Jackrabbits just loved alfalfa. So on the eve of the Great War, the relationship between prairie folk and their prairie hares had become distinctly antagonistic.

Stay Connected
Related Content