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Quest For The Jackalope

Is the legendary jackalope the most endangered species in the Lower 48 or just an old cowboy tale that refuses to die?

Field Report:

Big Bend, Texas

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Photo by Mike Frick

Deep in the heart of Big Bend National Park, Texas

The rangers at Big Bend National Park are used to keeping a straight face when answering odd questions about their backcountry, such as whether a rattlesnake will crawl into your sleeping bag at night and if you can really drink water from a cactus if buzzards are circling overhead. Jackalope inquiries, though, raise a collective eyebrow even from the uniformed ones behind the visitor center counter.

“We had a man in here the other day insisting they were real, but generally there’s not much talk about jackalopes,” ranger Valerie Naylor told me as she filled out my backcountry permit, occasionally looking up to check my expression. “You hear more about them in the South Dakota Badlands. I used to work up there.”

She shouted to a colleague down the hall, “There’s a woman out here looking for jackalopes. Seen any?”

“Oh yeeeaaaah,” a male voice drawled. “I saw one last night, on the highway outside the park.”

Naylor smiled apologetically at her partner’s obvious attempt to send me out of their jurisdiction. I figured the federal employees had been instructed-because of the government conspiracy and all-to throw jackalope seekers off the track. As I signed the permit, Naylor added, “You know, there are several different subspecies of jackalopes in the West. The ones you might find in west Texas would be from a mule deer, but the species in the Dakotas is probably related to the pronghorn antelope.”

I was bolstered by Naylor’s courageous willingness to discuss what may very well be a blackballed subject in her office. And since I wasn’t sure whether the guys in the back offices were listening, I spared her the results of my research, which had revealed that there are various subspecies unique to the states of Texas, Arizona, and Utah. The experts in Douglas, Wyoming, even contend that in the 1800s, there was a subspecies larger and more aggressive than the elusive creatures of today.

I thanked Naylor and we then headed off down the Window Trail in Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains. It seemed like a good place to troll for jacks, as well as for passing hikers who might have seen one. I pulled the Stuckey’s postcard from my pack and stuffed it in my pocket, at the ready. It might have been the desert sun getting to me, or the fact that Mike wasn’t trying to hide anymore, but I felt bolder, more confident.

As we shuffled down a steep slope into a canyon, a woman wearing a blue baseball cap huffed toward us. “Have you seen this animal?” I asked her, holding the postcard out to her.

“Oh my!” she laughed, struggling to catch her breath after the uphill hike. “That’s a jackalope! I’m from Chicago, but I know what that is.”

She trudged on past us, which I took to mean “no.” We continued hiking downhill to a dramatic pour-off that looks out onto an endless ocean of Mexican mountains and desert. There we encountered four hikers, all wearing Birkenstock sandals and talking loudly in German. Unsure if they would understand my English, I pulled out the postcard and assumed the position.

One of the men, who was wearing a T-shirt with a pointy-headed, hollow-eyed alien on it, took my well-handled postcard. “Vow, dat is very veird. Vee haven’t seen dat. Haf you seen any mountain lions?”

We decided to hike out and then drive to one of the park’s more remote desert basins, assuming that jackalopes avoid windshield tourists and loud groups that hike in sandals. The vast, tabletop-flat playa we chose to explore for the next few days was punctuated with naked rock buttes and pinnacles and dense with Chihuahuan desert plants like agave, sotol, and prickly pear-good jack fare, I figured, assuming that the critters are vegetarians like their nonantlered brethren. Depending on your frame of mind, the sun-baked landscape was either barren and forbidding or alluring and mysterious. I leaned toward the latter.

The next morning, I hiked a short distance from camp to watch the sunrise. The silence was powerful and the landscape was streaked in muted pastels.

I wondered what a cowboy in the mid-1800s-recently transplanted from Missouri, perhaps-felt when he saw this waterless region for the first time. It must have seemed incredibly strange, and it was probably just as difficult for him to tell what was real and what imagined, especially after spending days alone under the hot sun, fending off mirages.

This place seems just as strange today to a hiker who’s not used to the tricks the desert can play on you. Here, where everything alive either sticks or stings, a rabbit with horns seems entirely possible. In fact, it’s downright practical from an evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest standpoint. I’ve heard detractors say that cowboys who claimed to have seen jackalopes were just drunk on cheap whiskey, but I’d say it was the land’s wildness that intoxicated them. Well, I guess that account about the 150-pound, man-eating rabbit could have been some liquor talking.

On our hike out of Big Bend, the plodding pace-coupled with 15 pounds of water as well as Austin on my back-seduced me into a trancelike state. I was focusing on the burden, the heat, and how far it was to the car when suddenly Austin yelled, “Jackalope!”

I looked up in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of a small, furry rump about the size of a cat’s as it hopped into the brush. Jackrabbit. Maybe. Or perhaps it was a jackalope and I was just in the wrong state of mind.

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