Oregon Trails: Dealing with Jackrabbits

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NEAR BONANZA, Ore. — Anyone who raises a garden or farms knows what a hassle it is when deer and other wild animals eat up the fruits of all your hard work. A hundred years ago, and again during the Depression, it was smaller animals caused problems for the community.

The Langell and Poe Valley of south central Klamath County are home to some of the richest farmland in the Klamath Basin. A hundred years ago this was still mostly sagebrush country. Taylor High grew up on the family farm, and remembers his dad telling about the time the neighbors would get together to get rid of the jackrabbits that were literally eating them out of house and home.

“They would put a fence up and they would go out and get pans and everything and hitting them and walk around and scaring the rabbits into the pen. And then they would go in there and hit them on the head or anything else to get rid of them. But they’d eat the gran and stuff that was coming up they had planted. And they was a problem,” Taylor High recalls.

It was a problem not unique to the Klamath Basin, but all across the west and plains states. Not all the rabbits were killed. Some were loaded up in trucks and transplanted to other areas, or some were likely taken to processing plants and used for food, and their pelts sold.

Many counties, including Klamath County, offered bounties on rabbits to encourage hunters. A Klamath Falls newspaper reported that in 1896 county officials offered a bounty of a nickel per scalp, with both ears attached. At that time it was reported that entire fields of grain, and gardens were eaten to the ground by hoards of wild rabbits…mostly jackrabbits.

In March 1902, the Klamath “Republican” reported that: “the bounty on over 30,000 rabbit scalps, and about 854 coyote and wild cat scalps was ordered paid. The rabbit bounty of 5 cents per scalp was ordered continued until May 7th.”

In 1895, the Tidings reported: “Lou Matney of Lost River was in town [Klamath Falls] Sunday, circulating a petition asking the county court to purchase a mile and half of wire netting to be used for rabbit drives.”

It’s estimated these drives, on average, netted from five to six hundred, to as many as two thousand rabbits at a time. Afterward, hot coffee and a pot luck dinner was often served, and sometimes even a dance would be held in the evening to celebrate, if nothing else, just being together.

Men, women and children all joined in the drives, but even with entire communities lining up to drive the rabbits, it still was not enough to eliminate the problem. So later, poison grain was sometimes scattered about. One rancher claimed to have eliminated 1,500 rabbits in one weekend with poison grain, but other ranchers complained the grain endangered their stock, and its use was limited.

“You could use a shotgun I guess, and get some. But it was a lot easier and cheaper just to have the rabbit drives,” said High.

But most farmers were reluctant to use guns very much because the bounty did not pay for the ammunition needed.

A story in the Evening Herald in January 1920 said, “…the rabbits getting to be so numerous as to seriously effect crops in many sections, and the rabbit drive is the most successful means of coping with this pest yet discovered.”

The drives apparently often carried with them something of a festive atmosphere that may be hard to comprehend today. A story in a February 1921 Herald Edition, written by a high school student, commented that, “…We all relished the adventure of it, when we came to the starting point. There were dozens of cars, scores of people, a few buggies, and 25 or 30 people on horseback. Everyone was talking to neighbors and friends and as soon as the crowd had gathered, the drive started.”

It wasn’t just in the Klamath Basin where rabbits seemed to be a problem. Just about everywhere during the Great Depression rabbits seemed to be over-running the county, and it was primarily the jackrabbits that caused the biggest problem.

There are still plenty of jackrabbits in the Great Basin, but Mother Nature seems to take care of the overpopulation problem with natural predators like coyotes, hawks and eagles.