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Black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbits in the American West: History, ecology, ecological significance, and survey methods

October 1, 2015

Across the western United States, Leporidae are the most important prey item in the diet of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos). Leporids inhabiting the western United States include black-tailed (Lepus californicus) and white-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus townsendii) and various species of cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus spp.). Jackrabbits (Lepus spp.) are particularly important components of the ecological and economic landscape of western North America because their abundance influences the reproductive success and population trends of predators such as coyotes (Canis latrans), bobcats (Lynx rufus), and a number of raptor species. Here, we review literature pertaining to black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbits comprising over 170 published journal articles, notes, technical reports, conference proceedings, academic theses and dissertations, and other sources dating from the late 19th century to the present. Our goal is to present information to assist those in research and management, particularly with regard to protected raptor species (e.g., Golden Eagles), mammalian predators, and ecological monitoring. We classified literature sources as (1) general information on jackrabbit species, (2) black-tailed or (3) white-tailed jackrabbit ecology and natural history, or (4) survey methods. These categories, especially 2, 3, and 4, were further subdivided as appropriate. The review also produced several tables on population trends, food habits, densities within various habitats, and jackrabbit growth and development. Black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbits are ecologically similar in general behaviors, use of forms, parasites, and food habits, and they are prey to similar predators; but they differ in their preferred habitats. While the black-tailed jackrabbit inhabits agricultural land, deserts, and shrublands, the white-tailed jackrabbit is associated with prairies, alpine tundra, and sagebrush-steppe. Frequently considered abundant, jackrabbit numbers in western North America fluctuate temporally and spatially. We also reviewed methods used to investigate jackrabbit populations, including spotlight line transects, flushing transects, drive counts, pellet plot counts, collections, roadside counts, mark-recapture studies, and radio-telemetry studies. Our review of jackrabbit literature illustrates a number of deficiencies in our understanding of jackrabbits in general. As an example, a detailed quantitative description of habitat preferences is lacking, as is a thorough understanding of sympatric jackrabbit species interactions. Even the existence of the oft-cited jackrabbit “cycle” is a matter of debate. Survey methods generally do not address efficacy or accuracy in measuring jackrabbit density or abundance. In addition, there is a paucity of information about jackrabbits in the Mojave Desert, with no real understanding of home ranges, habitat preferences, and population dynamics or demographics in this region.

Publication Year 2015
Title Black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbits in the American West: History, ecology, ecological significance, and survey methods
DOI 10.3398/064.075.0406
Authors Matthew Simes, Kathleen M. Longshore, Kenneth E. Nussear, Greg L. Beatty, David E. Brown, Todd C. Esque
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Western North American Naturalist
Index ID 70168726
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center