State biologists to study the large and elusive Alaska hare

Jan 25, 2017

Research planned on larger cousin of more common snowshoe hare found only in Western Alaska. Biologists say they don't know much about Alaska hare's abundance, habitat, or behavior.

The elusive Alaska hare is notable for its size and a defining black mark on its ear.
Credit Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife

Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game is planning a new study on the elusive Alaska hare this spring. The larger of Alaska's two hare species calls the western half of the state home, but the state says it doesn't know a lot about its habitat, habits, abundance, and ecology. ADF&G will be looking to local hunters and trappers for information as it aims to shed more light on this nocturnal big bunny.

Audio Transcript: Rick Merizon, an ADF&G wildlife biologist focused on small game, pointed out three distinguishing features between the Alaska hare and the more common snowshoe hare.

"One is just obvious, it's size," Merizon said by phone from Palmer. "The Alaska hare weighs anywhere from about 7 to twelve pounds and is about three times larger than the snowshoe hare. Their overall body size is considerably larger than a snowshoe hare. It is readily apparent when you see one."

The second defining characteristic Merizon pointed to is a black tip on the hare’s ear, most noticeable in the winter. The third is its tracks, again most obvious in the winter snow.

"The snowshoe hare almost always lays down a traditional snowshoe track with a large rear foot impression," said Merizon. "Whereas an Alaskan hare very commonly, I don’t want to say walks on its toes, but its tracks oftentimes resemble a fox."

Another difference between the two species is range. The Alaska hare is only found in western areas of Alaska.

"It is not all over the state, unlike the snowshoe hare," Merizon said. "Historically the Alaska hare is found on the northern half of the Alaska Peninsula, throughout Southwest and Western Alaska up to approximately the Noatak River drainage, and potentially areas slightly north. But they do not occur in areas in what Alaskans refer to as the Interior."

Credit ADF&G

He believes they may forage at higher elevations, or may be mostly nocturnal, either way giving them an elusive reputation.

"I've only see those guys three times that I know, and they're big," said Dillingham hunter, trapper Dan Dunaway.

The state does not have a lot of information about the species, like its ecology, habitat, behaviors, or its threats. While Merizon says there are no management concerns, biologists want to fill in those gaps.

"We really just want to know more about it," he said. "There’s really been no effort from a management standpoint to try and understand the species or understand their current range, current abundance."

As the study gets underway this spring, Merizon and others will start with some basics: talking with those who see them often, figuring out their habitat and behavior, and how to handle them safely when trapped for field work.

On a recent trip to Dillingham and nearby villages to start some groundwork this month, some hunters took Merizon out to a spot where an Alaska hare was easily spotted.

"Yep, it's a large bunny," he chuckled.

Reach the author at lawrence@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.