By Joseph Robertia
The snowshoe hare population is once again at its peak, and it’s fairly common knowledge that when hare numbers go up, so, too, do the numbers of lynx and other animals that see hares as food. But not all species are benefiting from trying to get an easy meal.
“We’re getting multiple bald eagle casualties a week,” said Todd Eskelin, a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. “We’ve had 14 hit in the last three weeks, and some of the people who called in a casualty said they saw six other eagles sitting right there.”
The problem is stemming from the large numbers of snowshoe hares that are being hit by vehicles as they try to cross area roads. The road kill presents a tempting treat for scavengers, such as ravens and magpies. These smaller birds can land, peck at the road kill and then fly off at the approach of an oncoming vehicle.
Eagles are not quite so nimble.
“People aren’t used to seeing such a big bird on the road, and most drivers think they’ll just get out of the way. But as a big bird, it’s hard for them to get airborne, so they get clipped before they can take flight,” Eskelin said.
Unlike the smaller birds, eagles are raptors, which frequently secure a meal by making a high-speed dive to snatch a food item with their talons. This, too, has caused a few casualties.
“Some are being hit when they’re flying in to scoop a meal, because they scoop so low,” Eskelin said.
Many of the eagle calls have come from areas south of Soldotna and Kenai. Slightly less urban than the cities, hares are numerous in these areas and are being hit by drivers commuting from Kasilof and other communities to the south.
Many eagle collisions have also taken place not far from the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s landfill in Soldotna, an area popular with eagles during the winter months.
“There are so many eagles there already. We counted around 400 there last week. So you’re naturally going to have a higher incidence, just from more being around there when a hare is hit,” Eskelin said.
The eagles that are hit and killed are collected and sent to the National Eagles Repository in Denver. There, the eagles and their parts are distributed to federally recognized Native American tribes for use in religious and cultural ceremonies, Eskelin said.
Orders are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, with a waiting list of about 6,000 applicants for the approximately 2,000 eagles the repository receives, on average, each year.
While eagles are finding the increased hare population to be a dangerous temptation, some other avian species, which are more reluctant to show themselves near roads, may be finding the abundant food source a boon.
“Great horned owls could be benefiting,” Eskelin said. “And possibly great gray owls, too.”
Most of the falcons in this area prey on other birds, but goshawks prey heavily on squirrels. Like lynx, red squirrel numbers often increase when hare numbers rise, due to the squirrels’ propensity to prey on leverets — baby snowshoe hares.
“More hares means more nests for ermine and red squirrel to raid for food,” Eskelin said. “It’s hard to say for certain, though, because we’ve also had a phenomenal spruce cone crop this year, which the squirrels would also benefit from. But squirrels are definitely not above eating protein. They can be surprisingly vicious. At feeders, I’ve even seen them jump on live birds and eat them.”