DNR and volunteers work to improve snowshoe hare habitat

Volunteer helps DNR staffer hinge-cut a tree to create habitat for snowshoe hares.

Feb. 11, 2016

Sometimes trees make better wildlife habitat when they’re leaning against the ground rather than standing upright.

That idea inspired Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Brian Piccolo to lead a recent volunteer hinge-cutting outing in a swamp on state-managed forest land in Crawford County.

Hinge cutting is a technique in which trees are cut partially through the trunk so they’ll fall over and their crowns hit the ground while the trunk stays elevated. The crowns provide cover for creatures, primarily snowshoe hares – a species that is in decline across Michigan and the intended beneficiary of the DNR’s project.

In a snow-covered open area, Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Brian Piccolo, left, talks with a group of volunteers.“We started this work two years ago, and the hares are using it,” Piccolo explained to a handful of volunteers participating in the outing, organized by Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “You go out there and see fresh droppings and hare tracks all under them.”

Piccolo said he started placing trail cameras in the vicinity of the hinge cuts. He found hares and noticed hares using the cuts, almost always after dark. That’s significant, as some of the biggest predators on hares – owls and coyotes – are nocturnal.

“You can walk out of the woods smiling hugely because you do the work and the effect is instant. The hares started using the habitat immediately,” Piccolo said. “And if they’re adjacent to aspen stands, which this one was, that’s a highly preferred food source for hares.”

The event was part of MUCC’s on-going “On the Ground” project, which challenges members to participate in hands-on conservation projects.

“On the Ground is a volunteer habitat program on public land in Michigan where we do habitat work based on the DNR’s needs for its management goals,” said Sarah Topp, who runs the program for MUCC. “We’re shooting for 20 projects this year. Last year we did more than 20. The program started in 2013 with six projects.”

On the Ground projects have most commonly consisted of building brush piles for cottontail rabbits on southern Michigan state game areas, though they’ve also built wood duck boxes and created other nesting structures for ducks.

In addition, volunteers with the program also have planted trees on state-managed land, cleaned up obstructions in streams that had created fish-passage problems and built wood structures on frozen lakes. The wooden cribbing sinks when the ice melts, providing spawning habitat and cover for muskellunge.

“We’re open to other ideas, too, as long as they’re on public land,” Topp said.

The hinge-cutting work involved two-person crews – one worker with a chainsaw, another with a push pole. WhileIn a snowy woodland, Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife volunteer coordinator Sarah Topp cuts a tree to make a hinge cut. the sawyer cut much of the way through the tree trunk at belly height, the pole handler pushed it in the direction it was intended to fall.

“You can’t just start dropping trees because it’s so dense the trees don’t get down to the ground,” Piccolo said. “You’ve got to find openings before you start. The trick is to cut the tree high enough so there’s space underneath it for the hares to use it. It’s almost an art, and it’s kind of fun.”

The volunteers on this late January project were, as usual, an eclectic group.

Wayne Hanson, 54, was attending his fourth On the Ground project. He had assisted three times at Gratiot-Saginaw state game areas building brush piles for cottontails.

Hansen said he became interested in the program when MUCC made a presentation to the Saginaw Field and Stream Club, where he’s a member.

“I figured I could give a little bit of my time to help out,” he said. “And I like to snowshoe (hare) hunt. Maybe I’ll find some places to go.”

Darin Potter, a 37-year-old seasonal ranger at Rifle River Recreation Area, said he’s wanted to participate in an On the Ground event for years, but his calendar never cooperated.

“I’ve always wanted to volunteer for one of these,” Potter said. “The timing was right. I’m on seasonal lay-off and I live down by the Prudenville area so it’s not that far.”

Also among the volunteers were three 17-year-olds from the Wexford-Missaukee Technical Center. Forestry is part of the curriculum there, and when a teacher told them about the event, they were all in.

Gary Roloff, an associate professor at Michigan State University, spent much of his time pushing over trees that Piccolo cut.

Roloff is conducting a three-year study, funded by the DNR, to try to get a handle on what’s happening to the state’s declining snowshoe hare population.

The project involves interviewing present and former hare hunters about where they hunted, then surveying those areas.

“About 40 percent of the areas did not have hares any longer,” Roloff said, noting the trait was more common in the Lower Peninsula, but was also occurring in the Upper Peninsula.

A black-and-white trail camera image shows a snowshoe hare at night.“That suggested two things, either habitat or climate change,” Roloff said. “There has been a general northward shift in hare occurrence in Michigan that is climate-related.”

The number of days with snow on the ground and maximum summer temperatures both play into snowshoe hare population numbers.

“After a warmer summer, hares exhibit lower birth rates,” Roloff said.

Snowshoe hares are brown in the summer months, turning white in the winter. The change is related to day length. Therefore, any late fall or winter period without snow leaves the white snowshoe hares more visible and vulnerable to predators. Each week without snow cover significantly increases hare mortality.

“Hares really depend on thick stands with visible obstruction for predator avoidance,” Roloff said. “Some of the stuff we’ve found with our research is right in line with what Brian (Piccolo) is doing.”

Piccolo said the horizontal cover provided with these hinge cuts makes more camouflage or hiding areas for hares.

“This benefits the hares by resulting in additional protection from predators,” Piccolo said.

Roloff said snowshoe hares are really a cool animal.

“Very adapted to living in snow, they’ve evolved to escape predators in deep snow by outrunning (them),” Roloff said. “They’ve got huge paws so they stay on top of the snow, and they’re not like cottontails that run somewhere and hide. Two years ago, when we had that deep, fluffy snow, the hares just flourished.”

Snowshoe hares are prized by houndsmen because they do not hole up and hounds can run them for long periods of time.

“They’re more of a loafing species,” Piccolo said. “They don’t hunker down like cottontails, they find spots where they can loaf around, travel the length of the tree, and then go on to the next one. So we stagger these hinge cuts throughout the stand.”

Piccolo said before hinge-cutting particular areas, he runs the idea past the DNR’s fisheries, forest management and parks and recreation divisions to make sure the plans don’t interfere with other land-management practices.

With the help of DNR wildlife technician Tim Riley and his crew of volunteers, Piccolo managed to create about 100 oases for snowshoe hare in Crawford County, something he hopes will provide more hares, and better hunting, in the years ahead.

For more information on hunting, visit the DNR’s webpage at www.michigan.gov/hunting.

To find out more about the MUCC volunteer projects, visit www.mucc.org/ontheground.

Watch a video, with interview excerpts, on the project.

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