Robyn Raisch began his search at sunrise in early July. He drove 30 miles of country roads in north-central Boone County, pacing himself at 20 mph and counting each and every cottontail rabbit he saw.
“It gives you a good reason to be up early and watch the sun come up,” said Raisch, a state conservation agent in Boone County. “I just putt along and watch the rabbits.”
The same sort of drive was made by conservation agents in almost all Missouri counties as part of the Department of Conservation’s annual roadside rabbit survey, which provides a measure of hunting prospects for the fall season that begins today and runs through Feb. 15.
Tom Dailey, a resource scientist with the Conservation Department, said the cottontail population is up a little more than 13 percent from last year.
A survey last year of the 72,000 licensed hunters in Missouri found that they spent an impressive 422,000 days’ worth of combined rabbit hunting activities.
“That’s a huge amount of activity and recreation associated with bunnies,” Dailey said. “Rabbit hunting is a big tradition in Missouri.”
The cottontail is one of the two rabbits in Missouri that is hunted for sport. The other is the swamp rabbit, found in southeastern Missouri.
Some hunters just enjoy the thrill of the chase, though, said Tom Strother, a regional supervisor for the Conservation Department.
The increase in rabbit population, Dailey said, is likely due to the mild winter and summer that Missouri had this year. More rabbits were able to make it to breeding season.
Cottontails can begin mating as soon as the weather warms, which can be as early as February.
One female can produce more than 30 young in a single mating season, but the average cottontail has about three litters that consist of four to five young.
Although the numbers are up from 2002, the cottontail population has seen a downward trend that has kept the population below average since 1992.
Increased urban development and agricultural practices that diminish the open land habitats of the rabbits are the leading factors in this trend, Dailey said.
Even as their habitat diminishes, Dailey said, cottontails still find a way to “do what they do best.”