Jackrabbit drives in western Kansas were viewed as a battle of survival between farmers and the rabbits during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the mid 1930s. Record-setting summer temperatures of the 1930s along with blowing topsoil and drought made it difficult to grow crops. Farmers received low prices for those crops that were produced. In addition, western Kansas in the mid-1930s was plagued with hoards of Lepus californicus melanotis, black-tailed jackrabbits. These jackrabbits were migratory and ate green plants and their roots. Adults were capable of producing three to eight offspring every 32 days. Reminiscent of the grasshoppers 60 years earlier, the rabbits ate everything in their path. Thus, the few farmers who eeked out crops had to cope with the rabbits demolishing their livelihood.
Kansans had hunted rabbits for meat and sport from the territorial period, and newspapers in the 1890s carried articles on a coursing meet (hunting rabbits with dogs) in Chase County. In earlier years rabbits had been a blessing in western Kansas, providing meat for the new settlers.
The warm weather of the early 1930s coupled with the lack of rainfall eliminated many of the natural conditions that killed young rabbits. By 1935 the Wichita Beacon estimated there were 8,000,000 rabbits in 30 western Kansas counties. The worst years were 1934 and 1935. Desperate farmers called them "Hoover hogs" after the U. S. President Herbert Hoover who was generally blamed for the Great Depression. The rabbits were eating what few crops had survived, depriving cattle of badly needed feed.
Several counties tried offering bounties of one to four cents per rabbit, but Hodgeman County stopped paying bounties at 44,000 rabbits when the cost became more than the county could bear. Strapped farmers couldn't afford to waste precious ammunition shooting them.
Drives to control the rabbit population were tried as early as the turn of the century, so the idea was not a new one in the 1930s. Drives were often held on Sunday afternoons in the late winter or early spring, with February and March being the most popular months. Drives were advertised in newspapers and on handbills in neighboring counties. Several county commissions purchased fencing. Other groups such as county farm bureaus, chambers of commerce, and local newspapers lent support.
The size of a drive varied from covering one or two sections of land to massive efforts covering several square miles. The largest successful drive was near Dighton in Lane county and involved 10,000 people in an area eight miles square. It was estimated that this drive netted 35,000 rabbits.
At the beginning of a drive, people lined up about every 20 to 30 feet along the four sides of a square and made noise as they walked. Often there were two lines on each side with women and children behind the front line in cars and trucks blowing horns, pounding on pans, or anything else to scare rabbits ahead.
A fenced area in the center was the object of the drive. The size of the enclosure varied from about 75 feet square to as large as 40 acres. People closed in toward it, coming closer together all the time. By the time they reached the enclosure, people were shoulder to shoulder, blocking all possible paths of escape for the rabbits. At the end of most drives, he rabbits were clubbed to death in the fenced enclosure. Firearms were strictly forbidden, lest participants injure each other.
Stories about the drives appeared in regional newspapers in the Midwest, and it caused an outrage as many people thought the rabbits were being hunted for sport rather than population control. Farmers emphasized the destruction the rabbits were causing to their crops and livestock. Eastern Kansas residents, who had no jackrabbit problems, were among the critics, prompting some farmers to propose that the rabbits be driven to the eastern part of the state.
The farmers tried to ship live rabbits to eastern states, but Ohio game and wildlife officials realized how destructive jackrabbits were and canceled their order. Residents of western Kansas rounded up about 1,200 live rabbits to ship to Indiana; the press in Kansas City, Omaha, and Denver as well as the Pathé newsreel company covered this attempt.
Cattlemen estimated that feed for 200,000 cattle was saved by these attempts to control the jackrabbit. The remains of the rabbits were used as feed for other animals. Relatively few were eaten by humans because of the fear of a disease known as "rabbit fever," introduced into the rabbit population earlier in the 1930s. Some rabbit pelts were sold for about three cents each.
Rabbit drives were a means by which farmers could directly improve their economic condition, which was being attacked by a variety of destructive forces in the mid-1930s. Though gruesome by today's standards, the drives fostered a sense of community as farm families struggled to survive during the worst years of the Dust Bowl and the Depression.
- Footage of jackrabbit drives (Section 8) in the Kansas Emergency Relief Commission Accomplishments movie
Entry: Jackrabbit Drives
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: March 2009
Date Modified: June 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.