Idaho History

Jack rabbits by the thousands were a constant plague for Idaho farmers

A black-tailed jack rabbit at Bruneau Dunes State Park.
A black-tailed jack rabbit at Bruneau Dunes State Park. Idaho Statesman file

Jack rabbits were so numerous and did so much damage to farmers’ crops in early Idaho that they were often in the news. In July 1874, when W.H. Thurman’s son accidentally shot his little sister in the leg, the Idaho Statesman wrote, “The boy has been in the habit of shooting rabbits for some time, which troubled his father’s grain fields, killing a hundred or more a day.” W.H Thurman operated a grist mill about 5 miles west of Boise City where many area farmers brought their wheat to be ground into flour.

On Aug. 11, 1874, the paper noted that, “The rabbits are playing the deuce with the farmers’ grain on the south side of Boise River. We are informed that W.H. Thurman has lost 60 acres of grain by these pests and all the fields have suffered, and in some instances they are taking vegetables. The boys and men are shooting hundreds every day but don’t seem to thin them out in the least. The sagebrush adjoining the farms is a good hiding place, and as one travels along and scares them up he can see a hundred running at a time, and this is the case for miles up and down the river.”

The Ada County commissioners passed a law in January 1875 creating a bounty of 1 cent for each pair of rabbit ears brought in. It was raised to 3 cents per pair in July 1878, and in 1882 the bounty was 5 cents when hunter W.R. Adams turned in 940 pairs of ears, for which he was paid the grand sum of $47.

In November 1885, it was feared that Ada County was the victim of fraud by paying the bounty for ears of rabbits actually killed in another county or even in Oregon or Washington. The Statesman thought the sheer numbers being brought in was “a little suspicious.” In October 1895, $32,591.86 had been paid out in rabbit-ear bounties, a small fraction of what jack rabbits had cost farmers, but some thought the bounty was costing taxpayers too much and should be stopped.

On Feb. 6, 1875, the Statesman was pleased to note that the snow and cold weather was “playing the deuce with the rabbits. No great loss without some gain.” On July 1, 1875, it said that, “The farmers are happy. The cold weather of last winter killed nearly all the rabbits, and there are no grasshoppers in the valley yet that we have heard of.”

When it reported that over 1,400 rabbits had been killed in Malad Valley in the past three weeks, the Statesman quipped, “There are several rabbits still on hand.”

In June 1887, the paper noted, “Some kind of disease last winter killed every rabbit in the Weiser Valley” and recalled that in the winter of 1879-80 a strange malady had attacked the jack rabbits of Nevada and had come near exterminating them.

The Caldwell Tribune reported on July 4, 1891, that a petition was being circulated in Canyon County to increase the bounty on jack rabbits because of “the current menace” created by the increase in the rabbit population. The Statesman noted in September 1892 that Louis Michael of Caldwell had delivered 2,440 pairs of rabbit ears to the county auditor’s office, for which he was paid $122. A month later the paper said that 27,712 rabbits had been killed in Ada County in the past 90 days. A bounty of 5 cents had been paid for each pair of ears turned in.

In December 1895, the Caldwell Tribune put forth a suggestion unique for its day. It proposed protecting coyotes so that they could help kill jack rabbits. In January 1897, the annual jack rabbit drive at Market Lake in eastern Idaho killed 2,000 of the pesky critters. In these drives, carried out well into our own time, men and boys armed with clubs drove the rabbits before them, killing all they could. The popular name for it was “bunny bopping.”

The Twin Falls News reported that such a drive would be held on Thanksgiving morning, 1912: “Good sport is promised. … This will be a fine appetizer for the Thanksgiving dinner. Clubs and shotguns will be used only — no rifles or pistols.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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