Ohio's Snowbelt is the Florida of the snowshoe hare range.
ROCK CREEK -- After being captured in Maine and flown to Ohio, then rested for a night in a food-stocked pen, the dozen snowshoe hares set free in the winter wonderland of Ashtabula County on Wednesday face a mission that's not so bad: Breed like rabbits.
They aren't rabbits, of course, as any wildlife agent is quick to point out. They're snowshoe hares, which decades ago were common in the Snowbelt of Northeast Ohio.
Wiped out by hunting, habitat loss and predators, the snowshoes are making an assisted comeback.
Since 2000, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife has been importing wild snowshoe hares from other states, finding different locations within the Grand River Watershed to re-establish populations.
Wednesday's release was the first at this location two miles west of Rock Creek and the first batch of Maine snowshoe hares. A total of 40 were released in three locations. About 400 Michigan hares have been released previously in other locations.
Once captured, the hares are held for as short a time as possible to keep them wild and skittish around humans. After release, wildlife agents say, they typically disperse within a one-mile radius.
Most hope that the hares will go forth and prosper. The snowshoes reproduce rapidly, with females able to bear two to four litters per year, each with roughly seven to 12 young. Only five to seven per litter, however, will survive. Females typically account for 75 percent of the hares in each release because they can have the fastest impact on the population.
"We try to mix in as many females as we can with the males, so that they'll breed and have as many pregnant females as possible," said wildlife biologist Lou Orosz.
Snowshoe hares not only don't mate for life, they won't even commit for a few months. Males routinely breed with multiple females and the attraction is purely biological.
"Basically, a male is capable of breeding as many females as he can find in heat," said Ron Ferenchak, a wildlife technician. "The more, the merrier. The term is 'promiscuous.'"
Unlike cottontail rabbits, which are born hairless and with eyes closed, snowshoes arrive fully furred and awake, able to move around within a few hours. Females first breed in the spring after their birth, meaning the nine potential mothers released today could give birth to dozens of young by year's end.
If they aren't eaten first.
To most of the animals they encounter, snowshoe hares occupy that portion of the food chain known as tasty.
Coyotes and foxes are their main predators, but so are skunks, cats and dogs. A study by an Ohio State graduate student put the mortality rate for 160 previously released snowshoe hares at 60 percent.
"Owls and hawks will get their share, too," Orosz said. "But for the most part [the hares] blend in. That's why it's important to get them out in the snow."
Standing in Ashtabula County's knee-deep snow, it's hard to believe that the Buckeye State is to snowshoe hares what the beaches of Florida are to the rest of us. With the exception of some mountain climates, the Ohio Snowbelt is about as far south as snowshoe hares can survive.
"Twenty miles to the south, they wouldn't make it," Ferenchak said.
Each fall, the hares' fur changes from brown to white as the number of daylight hours drops, then back to brown as spring approaches.
It isn't too hard to figure out what happens if a snowshoe hare has white fur and there's no snow on the ground.
"Basically, a white hare without snow cover is just sitting there for predators like a light bulb," Ferenchak said.
But in wintry conditions, the hares have an advantage. Large hind feet allow them to travel easily through deep snow and escape.
More snowshoes coming
Wildlife biologists try to boost the hares' survival rate. The proposed habitats are studied carefully, and many private landowners have cooperated by allowing releases on their land.
"We've had wonderful cooperation from landowners," Orosz said.
It also is illegal to hunt snowshoe hares in Ohio.
But for the most part, it's still a numbers game. "With a high mortality rate, not great longevity and a lot of predators, the only way they can overcome it is with a high reproductive rate," Orosz said.
So wildlife officials plan to release more snowshoes at the same sites, stacking each group with three females for every male. As the dozen hares bounded off into the Ohio woods, Orosz said, "I guess it's kind of like going to a singles bar."
Just watch out for the predators.