By Jenny Neyman
Heather Sinclair and Lily Lewis crouched on the ground in the woods off Funny River Road on Aug. 17, meticulously hunting through a square meter of grass, leaf debris, twigs and other forest detritus for their quarry — brown, dry, round, about the size of a pencil eraser and a bellwether of the Kenai Peninsula boreal forest ecosystem:
More officially, snowshoe hare pellets.
Sinclair and Lewis were volunteering in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s annual snowshoe hare pellet count, a somewhat ignoble task, yet one that yields important results. Measuring pellet density produces an estimate of the refuge’s snowshoe hare population. Hares are a lynchpin of the forest, affecting and being affected by several aspects of the Kenai Peninsula’s ecosystem — amount of browse, maturation of the forest and abundance of predators.
“They’re a prey species for a lot of predators in the area, including avian predators. If snowshoe hares are doing well, the predators that prey on them are probably doing well, also,” said Liz Jozwiak, a wildlife biologist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
And so, they count, combing the forest floor for small, brown hare remnants. Sinclair is a University of Alaska Fairbanks student from the central peninsula. She spent the summer working with visitors as a ranger on the refuge and volunteered for the hare pellet count as a way to be involved in the biology side of the organization.
“I just wanted to get experience with another part of refuge,” she said.
Lewis came down from Fairbanks to visit Sinclair, so she volunteered, as well. As a botanist, she usually focuses on plants — and not what eats them — when she’s in the woods.
“I never work with animals in the field, so I wanted to get some experience,” she said. “I’m just here to help, and count poo.”
As they hunkered in the woods, they found the subject of their count to look somewhat similar to, well, several other things commonly found on the forest floor, which complicated the counting process.
“They look like spruce cones,” Lewis said, examining the first find of the day.
It takes a practiced eye to know hare pellets from similar-looking items at first glance. Porcupine pellets, for instance, are a little bigger and more oval-shaped, while spruce hen pellets have a different texture.
“It helps to have a visual in your mind,” Jozwiak said. “Spruce pellets remind me of date pieces from the natural health food store,” she said.
It also helps to have a system and stick to it year to year.
“We have the same protocols so we get the same kind of data, no matter who we have doing it,” Jozwiak said.
Volunteers often help with the pellet counts, which take place at five sites on the refuge, including off Skilak Lake Loop Road, Swanson River Road and Funny River Road. Sites are counted at the same time each year. Grids are marked by surveyor’s tape in the woods, with seven rows and seven one-meter-square counting sites on each row, spaced 30 meters apart. Counters locate a site, hook a metal frame over the boundary stakes in the ground, pick out every hare pellet within that area, record the results and toss the pellets outside the frame, so old pellets won’t be recounted next year.
The number of pellets found in the grids can be extrapolated into a snowshoe hare population estimate. That’s important information, because the health of the hare population indicates the health of many other facets of the forest.
First, there’s the browse the hares eat — grasses, buds, leaves, spruce needles and bark, as well as hardwoods like aspen and willows. If the hare population is abundant, so, generally, are food sources for hares, which also feed other animals, including moose.
Then there’s what eat hares, which is a long list of fur-bearing and avian predators — predominantly lynx, as well as great horned owls, hawks, falcons and coyotes. Hares are a major food source of the forest, with about a 70 percent mortality rate each year. To offset hares’ usual destiny as lunch, they breed like, well, rabbits — able to reproduce at about 1 year old, with two to three litters a year of about four leverets each litter. As the hare population grows, so do the populations of predators, especially lynx, which echo the hares’ boom-and-bust cycles. When the hare population decreases, thought to be due to predation, overbrowsing and possibly stress caused by the high population, lynx numbers decline, as well.
“It all depends on what habitat is doing, what predators are doing, what browse is doing; it’s a mixture of a lot of different things,” Jozwiak said.
The grids were established in the 1980s in early successional forests to midsuccessional forests, which is habitat that develops in the first few decades after a wildfire. The grids were part of a more comprehensive study of lynx on the refuge, that also included live capture, marking, releasing and recapturing of hares, as well as lynx. Since that study concluded in 2001, the pellet count remains as a way to monitor the hare population.
It isn’t an exact science, but it gives researchers an idea of where the hare population is in its cycle, which typically runs about 12 to 14 years on the peninsula. The grids were established in areas that burned in 1947 and 1969. Prime hare habitat is early successional forest, and some of the grids are in burn areas that have matured beyond that point. And some, especially the Funny River Road grid, have development creeping in closer than it was when the grids were plotted out, with people, dogs and traffic potentially affecting the number of hares in the area.
Despite all that, even the 1947 burn area grids are still an indicator of hare populations in that habitat, and that habitat accounts for about 30 percent of the habitat on the refuge, Jozwiak said.
“It gives us an indication to what is happening with the snowshoe hare population in certain areas. It’s a small glimpse, or snapshot, to what’s going on,” she said.
What’s going on is an increase in hares. The population is cycling upward, since a low point in about 2002. Judging from the pellet counts, the current cycle, which started ramping up in about 2007, is poised to result in a higher hare population than the last cycle. The high point of the previous cycle, in 1999, netted an average of just fewer than 20 pellets per square meter (not counting a margin of error in the study). In 1984, the average pellet-per-square-meter count was over 60. At their peak, hare populations can result in as many as 600 hares per square mile.
In 2008, the average pellet count was already closing in on 10 per square meter. Jozwiak said the average this year has been about 9 pellets per square meter, and she’s seeing more young hare pellets this year than she has recently.
Anecdotally, hares are becoming a more common sight on the peninsula.
“The hare population seems to be up,” said Mike Crawford, president of the Kenai Peninsula Trappers Association. “In places out on my trapline where I haven’t seen any hares at all, this last winter they were everywhere, and that’s what everyone else is telling me. Just around my house, I’ve seen a large increase. I can’t grow flowers anymore. They eat all my berry bushes. They’re very destructive little suckers.”
Hares may be a headache for gardeners, but they are a boon to trappers, since more hares mean more lynx, enough for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to allow lynx trapping last winter for the first time since the winter of 2001-2002.
Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with Fish and Game, said the opening of lynx trapping generally lags about a year behind the snowshoe hare cycle.
“When lynx numbers are down, we close the season in the low of the cycle. Lynx follow the snowshoe hare cycle, so when we see the snowshoe hare numbers increasing, we will look at when it’s appropriate to open the lynx season back up,” Selinger said. “We allow it to stay open through the peak of the cycle, and just after the hares crash.”
Fish and Game doesn’t have a specific hare or lynx counting program, but they keep an eye on the populations through reports from trappers and the general public, as well as through their own observations while doing aerial moose surveys and while out in the field.
They also track lynx harvests when trapping is open or when just hunting is allowed, paying special attention to the percentage of kits harvested, since that’s an indicator of what the population is doing. The previous peak lynx harvest cycle on the peninsula was the winter of 1997-98, with 148 lynx harvested, of which 31 percent were kits, and 1998-99, with 151 harvested and 25 percent kits. In 1999-2000, 146 were harvested, with 15 percent kits. In 2000-01, it was 98 harvested with 30 percent kits, then 74 harvested in 2001-02, with only 9 percent kits. When only hunting of lynx is allowed, Selinger said typically only 10 or less lynx are harvested. Last winter, when trapping was re-opened, 97 lynx were harvested, with 36 percent kits. Once opened, lynx trapping generally remains available for six seasons, Selinger said.
Roger Tachick, a longtime trapper on the refuge and a Soldotna resident since 1951, said he has seen more lynx lately.
“I’ve been noticing an increase here in the last three years, I’m out in the woods a lot in the wintertime, so I watch this,” he said.
Lynx are nocturnal and difficult to get a glimpse of, Tachick said. But he can tell their numbers are up by the increase in tracks.
“You don’t see too many lynx, but they are there. I’m seeing more tracks in the winter. And you see signs in summertime, in a creek or someplace muddy, a game trail or someplace where they leave their footprint, in a sandbar or something like that,” he said.
Tachick said he expects the high point in the hare cycle to be coming in about two or three years, but doesn’t expect the high hare numbers he’s seen in the past.
“We do not have as many rabbits in the high cycle than we had about 20 years ago,” he said. “That’s got nothing to do with the human population, but with the other natural predators. We have more eagles and coyotes and wolves than we had then. I don’t know why, but they’re there.”
Tachick’s trapline was in the area along Funny River Horse Trail to Horse Trail Lake and beyond, which was swept by this summer’s Shantatalik Creek fire. But at this point in his life, trapping is more for enjoyment than profit, Tachick said, so he’s not too concerned about it. Fires happen when and where they happen, which encourages the hare population to flourish, and lynx come along after them.
“The fire wiped out my trapline, but that’s nature. It’ll come back in a few years. There’s good sides and bad sides to a fire,” he said. “That’s what Mother Nature does.”