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A Sham Battle

In March of 1916 the Valley City Record reported a battle having taken place in Hobart Township — but the paper called it a “sham battle.” A battle against whitetail jackrabbits, which had come to be regarded as an agricultural pest, particularly for their consumption of alfalfa. And the Great War was on, providing rhetorical inspiration for the event.

“The offending rabbits had been noticed mobilizing in large numbers along the river bluffs, and something had to be done,” declared the reporter. A farmer named Charles Faust was designated “commander in chief of the attacking party” assailing the rabbits “well entrenched along the river. . . . it was not long until the rabbits had left their trenches and were in full retreat.” After which, the victorious volunteers were served lunch and hot coffee. “Those present went home,” adjudged the reporter, “with the firm conviction that it is preparedness that counts.”

War has consequences for our relationship with nature. Indeed, among us wonky academics, the hottest field in military history now is the environmental history of warfare. I’m saying, it reaches all the way across the Atlantic to touch places like Hobart Township in the middle of North Dakota. And its jackrabbits.

Food shortages were a constant concern during the Great War, with eggs sometimes scarce. North Dakota had flocks of laying hens, but they were poor producers in winter. Somebody discovered that, as the Jamestown Alert said in 1916, “the indifference of the hen to egg laying during the winter months is something that can be changed” with the provision of protein supplements — in the form of jackrabbit carcasses.

“A good many farmers have found that their hens eat greedily of jack rabbit meat during cold weather, and . . . a diet of jackrabbit is a great incentive to hens laying.” Rabbits killed in winter could be frozen for storage and used as needed. Egg production, and the already-strong penchant for pest control, kept communities actively organizing rabbit drives into the 1920s.

During which time — and I have to think the return of veterans with military experience had something to do with this — rabbit drives turned into sophisticated military-style operations, large in scale. Three hundred men took part in a rabbit drive near McClusky in February 1920 and killed more than five hundred rabbits. This required the formation of lines to encircle large areas and drive to the center.

It occurs to me that automobiles were making a difference by this point. Rabbit drives were much larger because participants drove to them on call from long distances.

The reporter at McClusky emphasized “the large amount of grain” consumed by jackrabbits and the fruit trees they killed through ringbarking. He also said, “It was a great day for the boys and men, too, enjoyed the drive. The drive ended at about 2:30 and a dinner was served at a nearby farm.”

Amidon, Wilton, one town after another had such organized rabbit drives in the 1920s and for a while in the 1930s, but the greatest of them all was at New England. In 1926 the president of the ad hoc association organizing the New England rabbit drive, C. L. Strong, recounted that this was the fourth annual such event; the previous year’s drive had killed more than nine thousand rabbits. This year’s hunt, Strong explained, was an “invitational event” appealing to “the entire northwest” to drive in and kill rabbits at New England. Organized rabbit hunts had become matters of destination tourism.

You don’t have to be a dedicated animal-rights advocate to be uncomfortable with his chapter in our environmental history. Nor need we be consumed with guilt about it. We just might think a little bit about our legacy relationship with the land and its creatures.

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