Identifying the Effects of Climate and Land Use Change on Snowshoe Hare in the Midwest

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Midwest CASC-supported researchers found that maintaining forests with dense understory (e.g. aspen-alder) habitat and connectivity may help snowshoe hare populations in central Wisconsin persist through land use and climate change.

Image: Climate Change and Snowshoe Hares Winter White Fur

Snowshoe hare experiencing camouflage mismatch in the spring at the Seeley Lake, MT, study site.

(Credit: Dr. L. Scott Mills (Research Photo), North Carolina State University. Public domain.)

Geographic range shifts in response to changing land use (e.g. fragmentation, degradation) and climate (e.g. warming temperatures, variable snow cover) can lead to localized loss in biodiversity. Although there have been many studies on wildlife range shifts at broad scales, they do not typically address the local level mechanisms that are driving such shifts. Gaining a better understanding of these mechanisms can lead to more appropriate management and conservation efforts by giving managers more accurate details about how climate and land use changes may affect wildlife habitat.

In a study supported by the Midwest CASC, researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison explored the effects of climate and land use change on snowshoe hare range shifts. The population dynamics of snowshoe hare are well-studied, allowing for better comparison of their past, present and future ecology. Climate factors, such as decreased snow duration and increased temperatures, are known to have increased camouflage mismatch (i.e. an inability to match seasonal coat color molts with the surrounding landscape, see photo), in snowshoe hares leaving them more vulnerable to predation. It has been shown that early-successional forest habitat can provide refugia for snowshoe hares experiencing mismatch, however, this habitat is highly fragmented along the southern boundary of their range. To better understand the dynamics of climate on habitat, the research team looked at how snow cover, habitat composition, and landscape configuration affected site colonization for 96 hares translocated from Chequamegon National Forest-Medford district in northern Wisconsin to the Sandhill Wildlife Area in central Wisconsin.

Using data collected from camera traps deployed at the study site, researchers were able to monitor snowshoe hare activity before, during, and after the experimental translocation occurred. These data were used in a multi-season occupancy model to analyze the effects of habitat and climate on colonization and extinction patterns. These new model outputs were compared against historical patterns and simulated future effects of habitat alterations, such as timber harvest.

This research showed that snowshoe hare in central Wisconsin benefit from habitat with early successional aspen-alder. Future simulations of timber harvests suggested that hare occupancy will increase with harvests because it creates large patches of early-successional habitat. These findings can aid resource managers in their management and conservation decisions by providing insight into mechanisms that drive range-shifts at local level scales and highlighting ways to buffers effects of climate change for individual species and ecological communities.

This study is a product of a larger Midwest CASC funded project, Managing and Promoting the Resiliency of Winter-Adapted Species to Climate Change.

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