I was listening to the Meateater podcast the other day where they were interviewing Laura Krantz, a journalist and host of the Wild Thing podcast, about the man, the myth, the legend…Bigfoot. One of the things that particularly caught my attention was that Laura’s relative, Grover Krantz, one of the pioneers of the whole sasquatch thing, who believed there was a bigfoot, was actively trying to kill a bigfoot. He felt that a researcher would be much more successful at saving the bigfoot population if they were able to sacrifice just one as evidence they do, indeed, exist. I guess that kind of makes sense, but what if he actually found one? What if he successfully shot and killed it in the name of science, and later found out that it was the last one on earth?
That's what I pondered the other day while I was hiking through the heart of the Pigeon River Country State Forest (PRC) in Northern Michigan on a Christmas Day grouse hunt. I wasn’t seeing any sign of grouse so my mind began to wander to other small game species I might be able to make a meal out of. Squirrels and rabbits are in season, and I was trying to decide if I would take either if the opportunity presented itself. That sent my mind down the proverbial rabbit hole—pun intended-- and I was trying to think about the last time I encountered a snowshoe hare in the PRC? Its actually been a couple years since I’ve seen a live rabbit while hunting anywhere in northern Michigan. I’ve seen a few cottontails here and there while driving, and I saw a snowshoe this summer on the way to one of my trout spots, but none while hunting or fishing, and I’m out there a lot.
Where’d they all go?
I’ve never been a diehard rabbit hunter, but when I was in my early 20s—in the early 2000’s—you would commonly see cottontails while hunting other animals. Even then, snowshoes weren’t as common, but it wasn’t uncommon to see one. Now if you see a snowshoe, you tell someone about it. Now, if you even see a snowshow track, you tell someone about it—and probably take a pic with your phone and post it on social media. Just over the last week, I've hiked over 15 miles in the PRC Much of that through river bottoms, conifers and cedar swamps, clearcuts, etc. Most of this was prime rabbit habitat, and I didn’t see a single rabbit track. Not one. I would have probably been better off looking for bigfoot.
No one alive today remembers how sportsmen spearheaded and led the conservation movement in the late 19th and early part of the 20th century. I’m sure those guys who were saying we need to start conserving our wild places and critters might have gotten a little bit of pushback from their fellow sportsmen. It probably got a little easier to promote the idea of conservation when species like the passenger pigeon—a bird whose numbers were so high they would literally black out the sky—went extinct. Martha, the last known passenger pigeon died in the Cincinatti Zoo in 1914. That same year, Michigan built a grayling hatchery in an effort to restore a rapidly declining grayling population but it was too little, too late. Michigan grayling were gone by the 1930’s.
I bet if you told a Michigan resident in 1850 that in only 80 years, grayling would be extirpated and passenger pigeons would be completely extinct, they would look at you like were crazy. Probably the way someone would have looked at me in 1990 if I told them in 30 years, it would feel impossible to find a snowshoe hare in the Pigeon River Country.
I was talking to my buddy, Lance, about it. He spends just as much time in the PRC as anyone I know and has similar observations. He shared an article with me that says MSU researchers attribute the showshoe’sdecline to climate change. My other buddy, Steve, showed me a trail cam picture not far outside the PRC of a couple under his corn feeder, but his other half won’t let him shoot one. My friend, Tim, rabbit hunts mostly in the U.P. and says it’s a night and day difference between there and here. Tim thinks its because we don’t get enough snow anymore in the northern lower, and have more avian and mammalian predators.
I’m sure Tim’s right. But I think the elephant in the room is, why haven’t showshoe hare bag limits been reduced in the northern lower in response to their declining population? If I could find five, I could go take 5 today, the same as I could in the 90’s. How long are we going to all talk to each other about how we’re not seeing snowshoe hares in the northern lower anymore, before we don’t have any snowshoes in the northern lower anymore? I'm not saying we shouldn't be allowed to hunt showshoes in the northern lower anymore, but maybe the daily bag limit should be adjusted.
So getting back to my Christmas day hunt for a partridge in a pear tree, I decided that if I did encounter a bigfoot, er, I mean, snowshoe hare, I wouldn’t kill it. While I’m not naïve enough to think it would actually be the last one in the PRC, I’m still not willing to take that risk.