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Dynamics of a snowshoe hare population in fragmented habitat

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Canadian Journal of Zoology





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During November 1988 – December 1991 we livetrapped, radio-collared, and monitored the survival, reproduction, and movements of snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus) in highly fragmented habitat near the species' geographic limit in central Wisconsin. Our 7 study areas centered on 5- to 28-ha patches of prime habitat: dense stands of willow (Salix), alder (Alnus), and regenerating aspen (Populus) on poorly drained soils. Maximum hare densities averaged 1.6 – 0.8/ha, and were unrelated to patch size. Rapid declines to extinction occurred on 3 of the 5 smallest study areas; on another, where extinction seemed imminent, juvenile ingress restored the population. On the 2 largest areas (23 – 28 ha of prime habitat) hare populations were stationary during the first 2 years, but declined by 50 – 70% in the third as mean annual (September – August) survival of radio-collared hares fell from 0.27 (1988 – 1990) to 0.07 (1990 – 1991). Annual survival on the 3 extinction sites averaged just 0.015 compared with 0.179 elsewhere. Reproduction did not differ between small (5 – 7 ha) vs. larger (23 – 28 ha) patches nor between years. Estimated dispersal of adult and juvenile hares from the 5 small study areas was twice as high as from the 2 larger, viz. 16 vs. 35% annually. Dispersers appeared to have markedly lower survival. Predation, chiefly by coyotes (Canis latrans), was the proximate cause of 96% (117 of 122) of natural deaths among radio-collared hares, and was therefore the overwhelming determinant of survival and thus population trend. Results of this study suggest that probabilities of extinction in such fragmented habitat depend importantly on patch size and attendant hare numbers; i.e., fall populations of < 10 hares frequenting patches of prime habitat ≤ 5 ha are not likely to persist long without ingress.