A jackrabbit.

In this corner of the country, jackrabbits have gone from ubiquitous to unique. 

And nobody is quite sure why.

Oh, pockets of populations still exist, but there are fewer of those than there are theories about how this came about and how jackrabbits' virtual disappearance figures into the ecosystem. But concrete answers are as hard to find as those big-eared creatures have become.

"I've read a lot of the old reports and started looking into it," says Jeff Bernatowicz, a Yakima-based wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But to be honest with you, I don't think anybody really knows."

Howard Ferguson, a state wildlife biologist in Spokane, says the general thinking used to be that jackrabbit populations were simply cyclical.

"Maybe a seven- to 10-year cycle - they'd come up and go down and then come back up, and with that attitude people thought, ‘Well, this is just a down cycle' and didn't really pay attention.

"Obviously, this one has been a lot longer than that."

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, jackrabbits were thick in the Columbia Basin, as well as throughout much of the Great Plains.

Now both white-tailed and black-tailed jackrabbit species are so rare in this state they are each listed as a "species of concern" in Washington.

"Most of the field biologists I talk to have real concerns for their long-term persistence in Washington," says Mike Livingston, a Pasco-based state biologist whose expertise is the wildlife that depends on the sort of shrub-steppe, sagebrush landscape that makes up much of Yakima, Kittitas, Grant and Adams counties. "We certainly know they've declined.

"There used to be so many jackrabbits here, there were bounties on them."

Humans' reason for eradicating these rabbits was simple enough: money and survival. During the Great Depression, wheat and alfalfa farmers were absolutely dependent on their crops, and a horde of jackrabbits could destroy a crop field in short order. They were, at best, considered an expensive pest. At worst — which, for many people, was the case whenever the rabbits were at their most populous — they were a scourge.

Because of that, hordes were killed by the hundreds in massive "rabbit drives." Sometimes they were shot, but most of the time they were simply herded into V-shaped pens and clubbed to death.

Jackrabbits were still abundant in the rolling sagebrush hills north and west of Selah in the early 1970s, when Jim and Judy Pearson of Yakima built a home out in the Wenas.

"A couple nights we went to drive-in movies and got home like 12:30, 1 o'clock in the morning," recalls Jim Pearson. "I had 5 acres of alfalfa, and when I'd turn in there, the jackrabbits would be everywhere."

Now, of course, they're not. And Pearson has his own theory about why.

"I'm certain I know, but I can't prove it," he says. "Winged predators — hawks, owls, eagles."

But if jackrabbit numbers are diminishing because of those predators, Bernatowicz says, where are the raptors?

"Ferruginous hawks are now state-endangered and the feds are looking at listing them, and then you've got golden eagles," the wildlife biologist said. "Both do really well on jackrabbits, and both of those are in trouble.

"There's no doubt that, compared to when people were kids, there's more bald eagles. But bald eagles are mostly scavengers and eat fish below dams that come floating up. They're not a major predator on mammals; they're more of a fish-eater and easy stuff, like carrion.

"We've got red-tailed hawks everywhere, and I'm sure red-tails could take a jackrabbit. But size-wise, they really aren't that big, so they're going to have a harder time taking an adult jackrabbit; they're looking more for things like mice. I'm sure great horned owls could take a jackrabbit, and we probably have more great horned owls around.

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"But that's not why we don't have jackrabbits."

Then what is?

Perhaps it's concentrated predation by coyotes, which also seem to have had an impact on the state's ground squirrels. "You just wonder," Ferguson says, "if coyotes are concentrating on one or the other as the (jackrabbit and squirrel) numbers go down."

Maybe it's wildfires.

"There are places where we've had large wildfires, and when you see that we see these populations crash quickly," Livingston says. "When you lose the sagebrush, which happens in a large fire, jackrabbits aren't too far behind."

Interesting, jackrabbits still persist in some areas of the Tri-Cities - largely in 100-acres-or-smaller plots where the sagebrush hasn't been replaced by development. "Probably not for long," Livingston says, "but they're hanging in there because, at least in the urban area, there's a lack of predators."

Ultimately, though, urban growth will fill in those pockets, just as it will spread out elsewhere into the sagebrush. Donna Lucas of West Richland knows that, and that's why for the last several years she's been battling city hall - metaphorically and, to a certain extent, literally.

Lucas is part of a group of volunteers and conservationists who have been trying to set aside land on which jackrabbits and other sagebrush-dependent species might thrive.

Their goal is to have an outlying area of Richland called Yakima Bluffs protected as an "Natural Open Space," with trails connecting it to a proposed "Jackrabbit Ridge" nature preserve to the north.

"(Jackrabbits) are a species of concern, but that doesn't seem to mean anything. Concern for what?" Lucas says. "Nothing is ever done for jackrabbits, ad the people who make decisions on what happens to property, they just want to make money.

"Houses are going up like crazy (in and around the areas she'd like to see protected), so it's just a matter of time."

What happens if jackrabbit populations don't rally? Should it matter to anyone, particularly considering their previous status as unwanted, crop-destroying pests?

It certainly isn't a simple black-and-white issue. Like anything else in the biosphere, jackrabbits' presence benefit some species and hinder others.

"That's what a lot of the research on jackrabbits is about: What do they really do? What do herbivores do to the landscape in general?" muses Bernatowicz.

"You look at Yellowstone. When there weren't the wolves to keep the elk on their toes, the elk were basically living in the riparian areas and eating the aspen shoots and stopping regeneration of the aspens. When (federal authorities) reintroduced wolves, the elk had to rethink the way they did things and change their behavior in order to avoid this new predator.

"Now the aspens are actually improving."

Similarly, landscapes of broad-leafed plant forbs are no longer being devoured by jackrabbits, meaning they are either flourishing or simply becoming a ready meal for other green-eating species. But if jackrabbits and squirrels are disappearing, what happens next with the species that depend on them as prey, such as ferruginous hawks, golden eagles and coyotes?

Over time, like the elk in Yellowstone, they'll simply adapt.

"Everybody talks about the balance of nature," Pearson says. "Well, there is no balance.

"You've got predators and you've got prey, and for a very short time those two species will be in balance. The lines will cross and that's ideal, but it doesn't last. Let's say it's the predator species on the upswing, and then the prey species numbers go down, and when those numbers get so small, the predators disappear.

"It's a constantly changing thing."

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