By G. Lee Dickson, P & W Natural History Writer
OWANKA, SD – It was known as the Grand Horned Bunny Experiment, and nobody but a couple of animal biologists from the University of Wyoming expected it to work.
The experiment faltered at first, and the two scientists began to worry if their subjects might perish. This was the Great Plains of South Dakota after all, and Mother Nature could be extremely brutal – especially in the spring of 1934 in east-central Pennington County. But Lars Noostegard and Joe Troutburn were determined to make sure what one might call the seeding of Lepus antilocapra wyomingensis (Wyoming Jackalope) a success.
The Jackalope was first discovered near Douglas, WY in 1932. It was essentially the result of crossbreeding between a jackrabbit and a pronghorn, or antelope, hence the name Jackalope. Rumors had persisted in the Cowboy State about the creature going back to the middle of the 19th Century.
Animal biologists believe Jackalopes are related to the Lepus Rangifer tarandus circumpolus, also known as the Siberian Jackalou. The Siberian Jackalou is native to Arctic, subarctic, tundra, and mountainous regions of Siberia and northern Europe. Scientists believe it migrated with the first Native American people from northeast Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge into what is now Alaska.
The Jackalou is a mix of a giant rabbit found in Siberia and the Caribou. Gradually, over 10,000 years or so, through interbreeding and crossbreeding with smaller species the Jackalope came about. It eventually migrated southward with warming weather as the Ice Age glaciers melted getting as far south as Wyoming and Montana.
Jackalous can still be found in remote regions of Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territories. There are, however, comparatively few left as they have been hunted to near extinction by the First People who value their hides for clothing and their antlers for grinding up to sell as an aphrodisiac powder to American tourists.
Mountain men, fur traders, Native Americans, and cowboys driving cattle made occasional reports of a horned rabbit inhabiting the plains. It was said the creature made a unique, if not downright scary sound at night. It was high-pitched and many thought it resembled an echo of human voices.
As Noostegard and Troutburn turned loose a half dozen Jackalopes near this small town in western South Dakota, they really had no idea if the creatures would survive that first year or be hunted down by ranchers who feared further crossbreeding with their cattle or even their relatives.
Fortunately, four Jackalopes made it through that summer, fall, and winter in Pennington County! And by the time the researchers returned to the Owanka area again in early summer, they found four new baby Jackalopes trotting along behind their parents. Their Jackalope herd had doubled in the first year!
And as many South Dakotans now know, the Jackalopes proliferated throughout the West River area – from Bison to Winner and from Ft. Pierre to Edgemont. The furry horned rabbits seem to prefer the canyons, draws, and gulches bordering the region’s waterways. They are especially predominant in the Cheyenne, White, Belle Fourche, and Grand River areas as well as the creeks draining into those rivers.
The Jackalopes bed down in sheltered areas during the days and roam the prairies and river bottoms for food at night. Many a camper in the Badlands National Park has awoken to the terrifying high-pitched sounds of Jackalopes singing drinking songs and human laughter.
As the Jackalope population has boomed and drooped, the State of South Dakota has had controlled Jackalope hunting seasons to help manage the creature’s proliferation. The state hasn’t had any hunting season since the early 1980s during the Janklow administration. At that time, it wasn’t unusual to come across groups of hunters in West River café’s and bars still wearing their Jackalope hunting gear of stovepipes on their legs and “Hunter Orange” vests and caps. The stove pipes were used to protect hunters’ legs from being gored when trying to flush out the wily critters from wooded creek beds and canyons.
There is some talk of the South Dakota Legislature enacting a special three-day Jackalope hunting fest over Easter Weekend to help taxidermists meet the supply-demand of the tourist industry. The back stock of Jackalopes has become so depleted as to create concern about whether businesses can meet the needs for clamoring pilgrims the next couple of summers. Also, members of both the state House and Senate Budget Committees are said to be intrigued by the potential of ground Jackalope antlers as an aphrodisiac for themselves and as a product to sell through the state’s Internet store.
Still, readers of this news tidbit are encouraged to celebrate and warmly remember the advent of the horned furry hoppers in The Land of Infinite Variety. Give a whoop and a holler any day this spring. Lars and Joe would sure appreciate it, wherever they are.