On September 14, 1804, while traveling through what is now western South Dakota, the Corps of Discovery encountered a creature they had never seen before. William Clark wrote in his journal:
Shields Killed a Hare weighing 6½ lb: verry pore, the head narrow and its ears 3 Inches wide and 6 long, from the fore to the end of the hind foot; is 2 feet 11 Inch. hite 1 foot 1¾ its tail long & thick white, clearly the mountain Hare of Europe.
It was not, however, the mountain hare of Europe, but a unique animal known today as the white-tailed jackrabbit. The white-tailed jackrabbit is found throughout west-central Canada and the northwestern United States. Not to be confused with its southwestern cousin, the black-tailed jackrabbit, the white-tailed variety is the second-largest hare in North America.
To Lewis and Clark, this was no ordinary rabbit. Accustomed to the eastern cottontail—which weighs all of a pound—they were surprised to encounter a hare of such impressive size—moreover, one that changed color with the seasons. On January 3, 1805, Private Joseph Whitehouse wrote, “One of the hunters killed a beautiful white hare, which is common in this Country.” The Corps had noticed that the animals changed from summer grey to winter white, the better to camouflage themselves against the snow at Fort Mandan.
Lewis and Clark were impressed enough with the new creature they had found to send specimens back to Thomas Jefferson with the return of the keelboat in April 1805. “We are all day ingaged packing up Sundery articles to be Sent to the President of the U. S.,” Clark wrote in his journal. Among the shipping manifest, he included these items:
- Box 1: No. 99 The Skeliton of the white and Grey hare.
- Box 2: 1 white Hare Skin &.
- In a large Trunk: 2 Cased Skins of the white hare.
As they headed west, the hare was a common sight. Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal on May 26, 1805, “One of the party killed a bighorned , the head and horns of which weighed 27 lbs. a hare was also killed which weighed 8½ lbs. the hare are now of a pale lead brown colour.” Considering that Lewis and Clark’s experience with rabbits was mostly limited to the small eastern cottontail, an 8 ½ pound rabbit seemed like a bonanza. However, they rarely bagged the animals as game, since they usually traveled alone and foraged at night. The rabbit was also very hard to catch. With its large ears, the white-tailed jackrabbit had excellent hearing, a good sense of smell, and keen eyesight. It was also adept at running away, traveling at the astonishing speed of up to 40 miles per hour.
On February 28, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote this extensive description of the “prairie hare” from their winter encampment at Fort Clatsop:
The hare on this side of the Rocky mountains is exclusively the inhabitant of the great Plains of Columbia, as they are of those of the Missouri East of these mountains. they weigh from 7 to eleven pounds. the measure of one which weighed ten lbs. was as follows. from the extremity of the hinder, to that of the fore feet when extended 3 F. length from nose to the extremity of the tail 2 F. 2 I. hight when standing erect 1 F. 3 I. girth of the body 1 F. 4 I. length of tail 6½ I. length of ear 5½ I. width of do 3⅛ I. from the hip to the extremity of toe of the hind foot 1 F. 4¼ I.— the eye is large and prominent. the pupil is circular, of a deep see green and occupys one third of the diameter of the eye, the iris is of a bright yellowish silver colour. the ears are placed far back on the head and very near each other, they are flexable and the animal moves them with great ease and quickness, and can dilate and throw them forward, or contract and fold them on his back at pleasure. the fold of the front of the ear is of a redish brown colour, the inner folds or those which lie together when the ears are thrown back, and which occupy ⅔rds of the width of the ears are of a pure white except the tips of the ears for about an inch. the hinder folds or those which lie on the back are of a light grey. the head neck, back, sholders, sides, & outer part of the legs and thyes are of a lead coloured grey; the sides as they approach the belley become gradually more white. the belley, brest, and inner part of the legs and thyes are white, with a slight shade of the lead colour. the tail is round and blontly pointed, covered with fine soft white fur not quite as long as on the other parts of the body. the body is covered with a deep fine soft close fur. the colours here discribed are those which the animal assumes from the middle of April to the middle of November, the ballance of the year they are of a pure white, except the black and redish brown of the ears which never changes. a few redish brown spots are sometimes seen intermixed with the white, at this season, on their heads and upper part of the neck and sholders. the body of this animal is smaller and longer in proportion to it’s hight than the rabbit. when it runs it carrys it’s tail streight behind in the direction of it’s body. they appear to run with more ease and bound with greater agility than any animal I ever saw. they are extreemly fleet and never burrow or take sheter in the ground when pursued. it’s teeth are like those of the rabbit as is also it’s upper lip which is divided as high as the nose. it’s food is grass, herbs, and in winter feeds much on the bark of several aromatic shrubs which grow in the plains and the young willow along the rivers and other wartercourses.— I have measured the leaps of this animal and find them commonly from 18 to 21 feet. they are generally found seperate, and never seen to asscociate in any number or more than two or three.—
Like most rabbits, the white-tailed jackrabbit excels at reproduction. A typical female jackrabbit has one to four litters with an average of four or five young each year. At birth, the baby jackrabbits have open eyes, full fur, and can start hopping around within half an hour. The young rabbits begin to forage at approximately 2 weeks of age and are fulled weaned at one month.
Lewis and Clark were impressed by the animals’ “deep fine soft close fur,” especially the white winter coat. Later travelers to the west agreed, and found that the jackrabbit served a lucrative economic purpose as well as providing food for their families. The white-tailed jackrabbit was a staple of the fur trade well into the 20th century. From the 1930s through the 1950s, jackrabbit fur in North Dakota was second only to mink in terms of value and profitability. Some hunters and trappers were reported to have taken in excess of 1,200 jacks over the course of a season. With the decline in the jackrabbit population and the changing tastes in fur, the economic incentive to hunt the white-tailed jackrabbit has finally faded away.