JACKRABBITS: An Icon of the Desert – Matthews-ONS – 11 July 2020

JACKRABBITS: An Icon of the Desert – Matthews-ONS – 11 July 2020

JACKRABBITS: An Icon of the Desert – Matthews-ONS – 11 July 2020 Numbers of iconic jackrabbits finally
appear to be on upward swing for now
Compiled by Jim Matthews www.OutdoorNewsService.com

I’ve decided the black-tailed jackrabbit might just be my favorite desert animal.

I’m not sure there is anything more iconic seeing than one of these giant-eared hares loping across one of California’s arid landscapes. I have seen them from the sagebrush flats around Crowley Lake at nearly 7,000-feet in elevation to the stark, below-sea-level desert around the Salton Sea. I have photographed them on the Carrizo Plain as they raced away from me while I was scouting for quail season. I have hunted, photographed, and watched them over the decades throughout the Mojave Desert – especially in the Mojave Desert.

I know many people believe bighorn sheep are the symbolic animal of our desert, but jackrabbits live everywhere in this creosote and Joshua tree country, while sheep are restricted to a relative handful of mountain ranges and are secretive. Both animals require big open spaces with long vistas. If someone were to design a logo for the Mojave, I would suggest it feature a jackrabbit.

A desert rat at heart, I don’t breathe well in heavy timber or brushy country. I hate fog. When I see ol’ longears there is always a big sky overhead and a horizon that is way over there. I know I am in one of my favorite places.

They have run along next to my truck at 20 to 25 miles-per-hour, ears erect, with long, bouncing strides while I paced them. When they decided they want to turn on the afterburners, the ears flatten over the back and the strides stretch out in a smooth run that gobbles up the ground and reaches speeds up to 40 miles per hour.

In the 1960s, on a drive up Highway 395, you could count hundreds of jackrabbits squashed on the roadway. By the mid-1980s, the carcass count could be tallied on a single hand between Kramer’s Junction and Lone Pine. Until recent years, seeing any dead jacks was a novelty. When I was in high school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I would drive out to the desert with 100 rounds of .243 ammunition and shoot at running jackrabbits. I would come home with all of the ammunition shot up and a box of empty brass that I would reload for the next trip. I eventually got pretty good with that rifle on running game, but as many jackrabbits as I shot it didn’t seem to put a dent in the numbers. There were times I stood in one spot and shot 15 or 20 rounds because so many rabbits were running in all directions. Seeing 150 to more jackrabbits in a three or four mile walk was pretty common. (A study in Utah documented about from 120 to 180 jackrabbits per square mile in the 1970s) They were everywhere.
Then their numbers plummeted, and I realized I missed them. I missed seeing them while scouting for bird hunting seasons, and I missed having young jackrabbit on the barbecue. Some of those same three- or four-mile hikes though the same habitat where I saw over 100, I would feel fortunate to see one or two. I pretty much quit hunting them. While the numbers never have rebounded to what we saw in the 1960s and 1970s, there have been little spikes in numbers, often just in small areas. And no one seemed to care.

However, numbers appear to be on a steady upward climb again across much of the Mojave. One a recent bird-hunting scouting trip near Barstow, we saw 20 of the big jackrabbits, the most I’d seen in a single morning in a long, long time. I have heard similar reports from friends poking around in the Ridgecrest region, on the Mojave Preserve, and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Jackrabbit numbers seem to be up in many areas. That is the good news.

The bad news is that in May this year the Department of Fish and Wildlife reported rabbit hemorrhagic disease, a deadly and highly contagious virus, was discovered a jackrabbit near Palm Springs. It is the first time this disease has been confirmed in California, but it appears to be spreading rapidly across the Southwest in wild and domestic populations of rabbits and hares. While not a problem for people, the virus “could significantly impact wild rabbit populations,” according to Deana Clifford, a DFW senior wildlife veterinarian. The reality is that the DFW can do nothing but monitor the impacts, and there are no vaccines for domestic rabbits. To report sightings of sick or dead wild rabbits, hares, or pikas contact the CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab at (916) 358-2790 or file an online mortality report through CDFW’s website.

But for now, this will be a good year for desert hikers and hunters to see jackrabbits.

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