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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:
White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument in south-central New Mexico is a dune landscape comprised of sky and sand that shimmers in the noonday sun. Amazingly, jackrabbits, antelope, fox, and coyotes all thrive in this Sahara-like environment. The tricky part, in terms of wildlife watching, is that many resident mammals hide in burrows during the day and roam the dunes in the cool of the night. I assumed that jackalopes would, too.

We postholed through the powdery, white gypsum sand to our designated backcountry campsite, and I studied the burrows all around me. As I tried to figure out just what type of critter might inhabit this hole or that one, a strange feeling crept over me: It was as if I were being watched. I stopped, looked around, and saw nothing but sand. The only sounds were the wind humming across the dunes and the delicate smacking of grains of sand against my leather boots. Again I thought of the cowboys riding across this sparse Western country 150 years ago-no sign of humans, no discernible landmarks for 20 miles, and yet you know you’re not alone.

That night in camp, my mind still spinning with thoughts of unseen eyes, I stared out at the seemingly endless dunes and watched moonlight play across the ripples in the sand. Perhaps it was the moonscape environs, or perhaps it was our proximity to the town of Roswell-so-called alien spaceship central-but all I know is that on this night, unlike other nights I’ve spent in desert locales, I felt that normally unfathomable, scientifically unexplainable animal life could indeed exist. Consider that biologists, learned men of letters, go into jungles and come out with never-before-seen species of bugs and toads, their stories winding up in such prestigious and credible journals as National Geographic.

With jackalopes, of course, there are a few logistical hurdles, to put it mildly. For instance, how would a jackrabbit with antlers maneuver through a burrow? And for that matter, how could a 2-foot-tall rabbit mate with an antelope in the first place? Personally, I consider such questions to be among the many mysteries of the universe, and certainly no reason to write off the rare hare. What pompous know-it-all would dare claim that we’ve discovered everything about our infinitely complex natural world?

I fell asleep listening to the faint crunchings of small animals moving about in the sand. In my dreams, a jackalope stared in the window of the tent, his distinctive ears and antlers silhouetted against the blue glow of the full moon.

Field Report:

Southern Arizona

A writer friend and amateur naturalist told me he’d seen jackalopes in the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona. “You never know when one will pop up around there,” he confided.

The remote Chiricahua region has several things going for it in terms of being favorable jack habitat. First, it’s home to the antelope jackrabbit, a likely first cousin and a species so well adapted to the Sonoran Desert that it can glean all the water it needs from eating grass and cactus. Second, the Chiricahuas were where the Apache warriors Cochise and Geronimo hid to successfully evade U.S. cavalry troops in the late 1800s. If the renegade jackalope is trying to avoid humans, this is the place to do it.

We hiked an area known as Cave Creek Canyon and, despite our best efforts, our search turned up no jackalopes. Apparently, the region continues to be a very good place for man and beast to hide.

We left the Coronado National Forest and decided to try the more exposed rock monoliths in Chiricahua National Monument. When we stopped to pay the fee at the entrance station, Mike, who had slowly become almost enthusiastic about the jackalope quest, plucked the Stuckey’s postcard from the dashboard. He held it out for the gate attendant to see and, in a confident, man-on-a-mission tone of voice, asked, “Seen any of these ’round here?”

“Well, no, I haven’t,” the woman said, just as serious and trying to maintain her professional demeanor. As she continued to stare at the postcard, though, her authoritative air weakened and I thought I saw the corner of her mouth ever so slightly lift into a hint of a smile. “It looks like a rabbit. What is it?”

“It’s a jackalope,” Mike replied matter-of-factly, as if that were among the most common of words.

She glanced down at the “Jackalope Research Foundation” sign Mike had made and taped to the car door and must have surmised the official capacity under which we were operating. “Have there been a lot reported around here?” she asked.

Mike smiled mysteriously. We drove on.

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