The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has identified the snowshoe hare as a featured species, which means the hares are highly valued but are limited by habitat.
Volunteers spent a Saturday in January at the Grayling Forest Management Unit to improve the habitat of the snowshoe hare.
“Snowshoe hares are a type of rabbit here in the northern areas of Michigan, and a lot of folks have great memories hunting them,” said DNR wildlife biologist Brian Piccolo. “Unfortunately, snowshoe hare populations have steadily declined over the past few decades, and research suggests that this decline is due partially to shorter winters and less snow cover due to climate change.”
Department of Natural Resources staff and volunteers from Michigan United Conservation Clubs hinge-cut conifers in lowland conifer swamp areas, the preferred habitat of snowshoe hares. The reason for this? Snowshoe hares completely change the color of their fur to adapt to their surroundings.
Snowshoes are a brownish-cinnamon color in the summer and will molt, or grow new white fur, in the winter. The white fur is great camouflage when snow is on the ground. If there is little or no snow cover during the winter months, the white fur is an obvious signal to predators that a potential meal is nearby.
Hinge-cutting conifers provides hiding cover during winters with less snow. The process involves cutting partially through a tree and leaving a portion of it attached to keep the tree alive. Then the tree is pushed over so that it lies just above the ground. The cover helps hares escape from coyote, fox, hawks, owls, and other predators. Snowshoe hares also use it as shelter to raise their young.
Other species benefit from the hinge-cut conifers as well. Whitetail deer and ruffed grouse make use of the cover and easy-to-reach browse.
About 200 trees were hinge-cut in Oscoda County’s Greenwood Township. Piccolo said;
When we think of doing habitat work in an area, we make sure we are covering multiple needs for that species, specifically making sure food and cover are available. These mixed-conifer swamps with nearby aspen are where most snowshoe hares concentrate and where we can have the biggest positive impact on the species.