On January 11, 1922, George Schutz is accidentally killed during a rabbit drive in Paha in central Adams County. Rabbit drives are considered a necessary means of exerting human control over the hordes of jackrabbits that would otherwise decimate wheat, Adams County's only commercial crop.
A Gun Went Off
On January 12, 1922, the Ritzville Journal-Times reported Schutz's death:
"George Schutz, a farmer living near Paha, was fatally wounded yesterday afternoon by the accidental discharge of a shotgun during a rabbit drive held in the Paha country. He died about six o'clock through profuse bleeding. The drive was over and the men were standing around ... [According] to the report received here, Schutz happened to swing his gun around[.] [I]t struck the gun of a boy named Kelly, who was standing a little to the rear of Schutz. Kelly's gun was discharged and the load struck Schutz in the calf of the leg. Fired at such close range the shot tore the flesh badly.
"He was given attention as promptly as possible and it was intended to take him to Spokane on No. 2, but he died before the train arrived" ("Farmer Shot Near Paha").
The rabbits in southeastern Washington including Adams County were prairie hares (white-tailed jackrabbits or Lepus townsendii) and possibly to a lesser extent black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus).
A photograph in the Adams County Washington Pioneer Edition, published in 1949, records a large group of Adams County residents holding up dead jackrabbits. The caption reads:
"In Adams County, the largest rabbit drive was an annual event sponsored by the Spokane police department." The killed rabbits were shipped by express train to Spokane and delivered to the Salvation Army and other charities for distribution among the needy during the Christmas holidays.
Jackrabbits, Squirrels, and Boys
Rabbit drives were not unique to Adams County. From the 1880s up until the 1930s, farmers throughout the American West used them to control the jackrabbit population and protect their crops. Local fire departments, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and similar organizations sponsored many of these hunts.
In some areas these rabbit drives were held weekly. In Idaho the events, by then protested by wildlife groups, were held as recently as the early 1980s. Sometimes the rabbits were shot, but more often they were herded into V-shaped pens and clubbed to death.
Squirrels, too, were a threat to crops and gardens. The Adams County Washington Pioneer Edition states:
"Hordes of squirrels were a constant menace to early wheat crops. The squirrels stole wheat seed almost as soon as it came out of the ground. If the wheat gained a height beyond the squirrel's reach, he would either straddle the stalk to bring it down or simply chew it through near the base. Many crops were completely ruined by squirrels" (p. 17).
For several years Adams County officials offered a bounty on squirrels and no boy's pocket was complete without what pioneer George C. Harter called a squirrel string (a sling shot) (Adams County Washington Pioneer Edition, p. 21). In 1894 the Adams County board of commissioners bought the deadly poison strychnine and sold it to farmers at cost for use in controlling the squirrel population.
One Plague Too Many
Adams County is semi-arid, with an eco-system known as shrub-steppe, and almost no sources of natural water. Prior to 1952 when the Columbia Basin Project brought irrigation water from the Columbia River to the region, the only crop Adams County farmers could produce on a scale larger than a kitchen garden was wheat.
For early Adams County farmers already contending with drought that could wither young wheat in the field and dust storms so fierce that families cowered inside under blankets to escape them, pestilent squirrels and rabbits were one plague too many.
By 1999 jackrabbits had become so rare in Eastern Washington that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife asked local residents to report to the agency whenever a jackrabbit was sighted. Pre-irrigation shrub-steppe jackrabbit habitat had been transformed by irrigation into what Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife endangered-species section-manager Harriet Allen described as "bits and pieces in a sea of farmland" (September 3, 1999 news release).
Jackrabbits are an important food source for golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, and other birds of prey. Wildlife conservationists feared that their decline would reverberate through the entire ecosystem. Although modern Eastern Washington's dearth of jackrabbits may be due more to loss of habitat than to overzealous population control by wheat farmers, the species decline results from human intervention -- by water and plough, if not by gun and cudgel.