By November, when Eastern Montana is clothed in countless variations of brown and tan, most of its drab-coated inhabitants are well camouflaged in the cured landscape.
But the snow-white jackrabbit that bounded out of sagebrush above Willow Creek stood out like a silver dollar on a pool table. Its bleached coat nearly glowed as it galloped like an ungainly steed across the prairie.
I could almost hear the misfortunate hare pleading for snow. This jackrabbit was caught between seasons, ready for camouflaging cover that had not yet arrived.
It was just a month ahead of the rest of us, betrayed by its protective cloak. Now that snow covers much of the state, those winter-clad hares are once again hidden in plain sight. Their drab summer coat returns each year in mid-April, coming in as splotchy brown under the fading white of the winter fur.
This seasonal camouflage is just one way jackrabbits evade their numerous predators. Their long ears can detect the approach of danger, their ability to burrow under protective vegetation hides them from hawks and eagles, and their rangy frames and large size — up to 8 and 9 pounds — makes them too large for many would-be predators.
The hares of our eastern plains are the white-tailed variety of jackrabbits, sometimes called prairie hares or antelope jackrabbits because they occupy the same habitat as our pronghorns. A corner of southwest Montana holds the black-tailed subspecies of the hare, which is more common in the southern plains and Southwest’s deserts.
Both subspecies share a remarkable ability to run. Jackrabbits have been clocked at more than 40 mph, eating up ground with their loping, bounding gallop that looks like a riderless horse.
Winter-clad jackrabbits will be hard to see for another few months, but any time we get a mid-winter melt or an early-spring thaw, jackrabbits will again be suddenly visible, betrayed by the very camouflage that is supposed to protect them.