It’s hard to be a rabbit.
Four out of five cottontail rabbits living in the wild in Kansas die within a year, said Jeff Prendergast, small game specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
Yet this species survives because it multiplies so quickly, Prendergast told the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission as it discussed state rabbit hunting laws March 31.
“All the jokes are true,” he said. “They are very prolific.”
“Almost everything eats rabbits”
When KDWP officials talk about rabbits, they mean rabbits, Prendergast told Capital-Journal.
Although hares live in Kansas, hares are technically jackrabbits, which are bigger than rabbits, he said.
The term “rabbit” refers to the genus Sylvilagus, which consists of 17 species, three of which exist in Kansas, Prendergast said.
He said the three Kansas species are:
• The desert rabbit, which lives only in the western third of the state, is smaller than most rabbits and has longer ears to help disperse heat.
• The Swamp Rabbit, which is darker and larger than other rabbits and has only been found in open pits in the southeast corner of the state. Kansas has not had a documented sighting of a Swamp Rabbit in several decades.
• Cottontail, Kansas’ most common rabbit, which is “probably the one you’ve seen in your backyards.”
Eastern rabbits are found throughout the state, Prendergast said.
They are an important prey species, as “almost everything eats rabbits,” he said.
Eastern rabbits are also susceptible to death from various diseases and environmental events such as snowstorms and droughts, Prendergast said.
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Where do wild rabbits live?
Rabbits need three main habitat components to live, Prendergast said.
• Nest cover, consisting primarily of fallow type fields, weeds and native grasslands.
• Protective cover to protect them from predators. This cover can include heather, brush piles and brushy fence lines.
• Food, such as fresh grass or tree bark in winter.
Rabbits have a better chance of surviving when all of these components are available in a two- to four-acre space, although they can roam up to 15 acres if they have to, Prendergast said.
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How fast can rabbits multiply here?
A female eastern cottontail rabbit can produce 35 to 40 offspring in a year, Prendergast said.
On average, he says, a female rabbit here gives birth to six to eight litters a year, consisting of four to six babies per litter.
The eastern rabbit breeding season in Kansas lasts about seven months, from late February through September, Prendergast said.
These rabbits have a 28-day period between conception and birth and are able to conceive again as soon as their young are born, he said.
“They reach sexual maturity within 80 days, which means mom’s first litter of the year actually produces pups by the end of the year,” Prendergast said.
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How are rabbit populations in Kansas doing?
The KDWP is seeing a slight overall decline in the rabbit population, according to the results of an annual spring survey conducted by state letter carriers, Prendergast said.
He said Kansas rabbit populations since the 1960s:
• Were stable in the central part of the state.
• Has increased slightly in southwestern Kansas due to the introduction of native grasses and an expansion of trees, shrubs and woody protective cover.
• Have experienced a decline in eastern Kansas, which has historically seen the most rabbits, due to the reduced availability of small farms and protective shelters.
“A lot of it comes down to landscape changes and changes in how we use the land,” he said.
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What are the rabbit hunting laws?
Cottontails and hares can be hunted year-round in Kansas, with a daily bag limit of 10 and a possession limit of 40.
“It’s similar to what we see across the west, and Kansas tends to be on the eastern part of that line,” Prendergast said. “States to the east are more conservative.”
Last year, Kansas raised the possession limit for rabbits from 30 to 40 in an effort to maintain consistency with its rules for pheasants and quail, which have similar habitat requirements, Prendergast said.
He acknowledged that this had prompted some voters to question why the KDWP seemed to be trying to increase the number of rabbits harvested when some Kansans believed the state was already allowing too many to be harvested.
“While that was not the intent of the settlement – it was more for consistency – we didn’t expect it to impact our harvest,” he said.
The state requires rabbit hunters between the ages of 16 and 74 to have a valid Kansas hunting license unless they are hunting on their own property. More information on acquiring such licenses can be found on the KDWP website.
Most rabbit hunters use a .22 caliber rifle, although small caliber shotguns are also used, according to an article on the KDWP website.
Rabbit hunting is “a good way to put tasty wild meat on the table,” according to this article.
An average of about 15,000 people a year hunt rabbits in Kansas, Prendergast told the wildlife and parks commission.
About 10% of those live out-of-state, with out-of-state hunters killing about 10% of harvested rabbits, he said.
On March 31, the Wildlife and Parks Commissioners discussed the possibility of lowering rabbit harvest limits, but decided, without a vote, to simply continue to monitor the situation.
“As with fish, reducing the limit will make no difference to the resource as a whole,” commission chairman Gerald Lauber said. “I don’t see anything that screams that we need to do anything other than continue to monitor.”
Tim Hrenchir can be reached at [email protected] or 785-213-5934.