History in Focus: A Reckoning for Mr. Rabbit
Hordes and waves of rabbits hopping around and devouring acres of crops, hay and vegetables sounds like a plague straight out of the book of Exodus. But this plague took place right here In Moffat County in the early 20th century, and ranchers, farmers and homesteaders were forced to take drastic action to protect their livelihood…with a hailstorm of lead pellets.
The Moffat County Courier bluntly stated, “Every farmer knows that the rabbits are becoming so numerous as to be an actual pest, destroying as they do large quantities of forage each year, both summer and winter, and how to get rid of them has become a problem…” (12/11/13)
There were all sorts of possible solutions to controlling the critters. Instructions for building a box trap were published in the Moffat County Courier (3/17/06). Some people tried a sinister cocktail of water, salt and strychnine sprinkled over a sampling of hay that was strategically placed around haystacks. Using this method, farmer John Hicks reported seventeen thieving rabbits paid the ultimate price. (Moffat County Courier, 2/19/14)
Yet, the most spectacular and far out attempt at eliminating the furry marauders came with the massive rabbit hunts held at various times up into the 1930s. They combined the thrill of the hunt, camaraderie, benevolent humanitarianism and good-natured competition.
The regional hunts were organized by one of Craig’s civic clubs and took place during the winter months. Competitive teams were usually formed, and cottontails earned one point and jackrabbits were worth two. At the end of the hunt, the rabbits were collected and counted, individual and team champions crowned, and the rabbits were shipped to Denver where the Salvation Army distributed the meat to the needy.
The 1915 hunt provides wonderful insight into this most unique civic event. On Nov. 24, 1915, a proclamation issued by Craig Mayor J.R. Kilpatrick was published in the Craig Empire. It declared Dec. 7, the day of the hunt, an official city holiday. Citizens were encouraged to leave work, shoulder a shotgun or .22, and eliminate the ever-fertile and reproducing rabbits.
In the same issue, a fictitious Mr. John Rabbit was humorously warned: “…you and your tribe have subsisted sufficiently long on Moffat County’s fattening crops…and perfectly good marksmen are going to pepper the internal workin’s of yourself and yours full of perfectly good #4 buckshot.”
Organized by the Commercial Club, ranchers were requested to come to town, meet at the National Bank, and transport hunting teams to locations throughout the county. A somewhat alarming “circle system” was used to surround and close in on the quarry. Thankfully, any hunter that fired their weapon into the center of the tightening circle would be forced to retire from the hunt!
Two days after the hunt, the Dec. 9 edition of the Moffat County Courier reported 1,500 to 2,000 bunnies were mowed down. The hunt was declared a resounding success, and the article stated, “Early Wednesday morning there could be seen five wagon loads of white victims, mostly big jacks.”
Claiming the lives of 90 rabbits, Pete Howard was the champion shooter
Roughly 720 were loaded into the baggage car on the Moffat train and shipped to the Salvation Army in Denver. (Craig Empire, 12/8/15). In December, the Moffat County Courier published a letter of thanks from Lieutenant Colonel, J.W. Cousins, stating the aged, widows and poor families were, “greatly pleased to receive such a nice present and I also wish to state the rabbits were received in first class condition.”
Today it appears rabbit populations have declined, but according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, data on rabbit populations is not precise. The state only tracks harvest statistics, which are estimates based on a small sample of hunter surveys. Diseases such tularemia and the more recent RHD-2 also hold populations in check.
Our grand rabbit hunts of the early 1900s were early precursors of today’s fashionable trend of ethically sourced, non-GMO, hormone free protein. When it comes to hunting, Northwest Colorado is always out in front.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at email@example.com. Special thanks to Dan Davidson, Director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado and Brian Holmes, wildlife biologist for the CPW Meeker office.
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