Residents of Geauga County are getting some new neighbors this week. The State Division of Wildlife yesterday began the re-introduction of a species once native to Northeast Ohio, the snowshoe hare. The animals are very common in Canada, and can still be found in Michigan, but haven't been seen in these parts since the early 1900s. Now wildlife officials are bringing the species back as part of an effort to increase the diversity of the local environment. 90.3's April Baer reports on this winter's hare transplant.
AB- If you like winter, as snowshoe hares do, yesterday was the perfect day for a move. Big snowflakes were falling in northern Geauga County, with the thermometer showing a balmy twenty degrees. State wildlife workers, accompanied by a small army of reporters, trudged single-file through a snowy field not far from Chardon. Dave Scott is a biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. He's spent the last few weeks in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, supervising the roundup that's bringing about two dozen snowshoe hares to Ohio-the first of the species to set foot here in forty years. He says Geauga county is an ideal spot for snowshoe hares.
Scott- It's a very young dense woody area. They like the woody stems close to the ground; they like overhead cover, and this provides a good, quality habitat for them.
AB- The regional climate is another reason Geauga County was chosen. As much as Lake Effect snow may frustrate local drivers, it's essential to snowshoe hares survival. Every year, when the days start to get shorter, snowshoe hares gradually shed their normal brown fur, and grow in a snowy white winter coat. This species needs to be in a place that's appropriate for its annual color change.
The wildlife staffers who've been working on this program say understanding how an animal interacts with its habitat is key to re-introduction projects' success. Kendra Wecker is head of Ohio Wildlife Diversity program, which boasts of bringing about a half dozen species back to Ohio since its inception. She says the there are strict criteria about what animals should be introduced.
Wecker- We have a short list of species that are extirpated in Ohio which snowshoe hares are, and we basically look at the animals and then we look at what habitat we have available. So it's all based on habitat.
AB- One look at the animals being reintroduced this week, and it's easy to see the snowshoe hares have some visual appeal as well. They're very camera-ready, if a little shy. With their greyish-white fur and big, dewy brown eyes, they look like a shoe-in for any wildlife calendar. And their enormous furry back feet look comical only until you see how quickly the animals leap over the snowdrifts, bounding away in their new home. Snowshoe hares have been clocked at speeds of up to 27 miles per hour.
(bystanders remarks: "look at 'em go! Adios guys!...")
AB- As biologist Dave Scott rips open the hares' cardboard carrying boxes, it takes him a minute to get hold of the agitated critters. It seems most of them can't seem to wait to get off on their own. Scott says hares are more shy than their smaller rabbit cousins, and unlikely to visit homeowners gardens to forage. He adds there are plenty of coyotes, foxes, and owls in the area to keep the snowshoe hare population in check. In fact, one of his main worries right now is making sure local carnivores don't eat too many of the new species.
Scott- Predators will always be a concern. It depends on the amount of habitat you have. During a reintroduction-that's when it's most critical that they actually live and reproduce themselves and not fall prey. But during this reintroduction time period we know that they will disperse and they will be subject to higher than normal predation pressures. We just hope we can catch enough in Michigan to overcome that, so we can give them a good start.
AB- A total of about two dozen hares were released yesterday; it's hoped some two hundred can be brought down from Michigan over the next few weeks. Several of the animals have been fitted with radio transmitting collars. Dave Scott says researchers from Ohio State University will spend the next three years tracking the hares, and watching their rate of reproduction.
Scott- Nathan has the radio receiver and antenna. You can listen to the signal from one of the hares. The antenna's directional. So by pointing it in the direction of where the strongest signal allows us to pinpoint the location of the animal. The strength of the signal tells us hoe close we are to it. Nathan: This is the one that went over that way; it's quiet over here....(radar bleeps in the background)...and it gets louder as I point it toward where the hare went.)
AB- In their native Canada, snowshoe hares are abundant, but they don't often show up in places where humans live. The Canadian Wildlife Service says that in years of high population, the species sometimes causes problems for farmers growing young trees or vegetables. That means there is one group in Northeast Ohio that's less than thrilled to see the species come back. Bob Cotterman is president of Ohio Farmers Union for Ashtabula, Lake and Geauga Counties. He says he's got enough problems with wildlife as it is.
Cotterman- We don't want to discourage anyone on any new proposals, but I think when you talk about putting out these new hares that they better get the consent from the people who own the land in the counties where they're doing this in.
AB- The Division of Wildlife's Kendra Wecker says she thinks it unlikely the hares will ever multiply fast enough to cause a problem. She points out the kind of snowy winter environment the hares need is limited
Wecker- We don't expect that snowshoe hares to increase the population such as cottontail rabbit because the habitat's not there. They will remain in northeast Ohio whereas Cottontails are statewide.
AB- For now, the state will prohibit hunting the snowshoe, as the species joins the bald eagle, the osprey, the trumpeter swan, and Karner's Blue Butterfly in the Wildlife Diversity program.