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Snowshoe Hares Without Snow and Other Ways Climate Change May Affect Animals in Winter
February 17, 2013

How do we teach kids about something as big as climate change? One way is to start small, by talking about how weather patterns affect animals.

Even preschool children may notice how summer’s bugs are gone during winter hikes, and read books about bears hibernating because of winter cold. They may know that snowshoe hares have white fur that blends in with their surroundings in winter. But what if there isn't snow? Do hares still turn white?

You can build on your children’s natural curiosity and observation skills, and maybe slip in some lessons about habitat protection and climate change along the way, by learning more about the animals in our region and sharing what you know.

At least, that was part of my thinking when I wrote the following Wild Wisdom column for the January/February 2013 issue of AMC Outdoors.

Snow Thrivers
Last winter, not much snow fell in the Northeast. While skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts were disappointed, many animals that are adapted for wintry conditions suffered more serious consequences. Just picture the snowshoe hare sporting its white winter coat on a brown field, making it easy prey, and you start to see the problems caused by warming temperatures and decreasing snowfall.

Snowshoe hares molt as the hours of daylight decrease in the fall, regardless of the temperature or the snow cover. For them, “their adaptation could become a disadvantage” as climate change disrupts the weather patterns in which they evolved, says John Organ, chief of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration for the Northeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Research has shown that less and less of the Northeast has been covered in deep snow over recent decades, and hares seem to be scarcer here as a result. Their range is retreating to the north, where their saucer-like hind feet can help them bound through the more abundant snow and their white coats blend in better.

Lynx, which survive on a diet of snowshoe hares and little else, are also adapted to deep snow, with similar snowshoe-like feet. When hares decline, they too will struggle. “Bobcats seem to outcompete lynx if they share the same habitat,” says Organ, who is also an adjunct associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The American marten doesn’t bound across the snow, but instead hunts beneath it for small mammals. As the snowline moves farther north, the marten may be at a disadvantage. Fisher, which don’t like deep snow, will occupy the marten’s range and likely displace it by competing for food and by attacking it directly.

With all these relocations expected to occur, it’s ever more important to conserve broad, unfragmented corridors of good habitat for wildlife. “We’re doing a lot more talking to our neighbors to the north” in Canada to ensure that animals can migrate along such corridors as needed, Organ says. “I don’t think they’re going to disappear,” he says of snowshoe hare and lynx. “But it’s hard to say what the truly long-term forecast is going to be.”

In the meantime, other animals may enjoy the warmer temperatures. The black bear, for example, “may actually see an advantage,” Organ says. This bear does not truly hibernate; pregnant females will winter in a den, but females that aren’t pregnant and males enter a deep winter sleep only when heavy snow or lack of food drives them to it. Mild winters are a bonanza for them. If you feed birds, Organ recommends stocking your feeder only when snow has fallen, to avoid attracting bears enjoying balmy weather.

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