Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bobcats—phantoms of the wild

Adaptable, elusive felines carve out niches across Idaho

Express Staff Writer

Photos courtesy of Idaho Department of Fish and Game An Idaho bobcat rests in the snow. Biologists believe the state’s bobcat populations are relatively stable but haven’t done enough research to know for sure.

Bobcats are ubiquitous, found in nearly every state, every habitat nationwide. But the species is also the overlooked redheaded stepchild of the Idaho menagerie. No one knows how many there are, exactly what they eat or what habitat they prefer. For all their prevalence, bobcats are almost the epitome of the unknown.

"Most people you talk to have heard of them, but have never seen them," said Lee Garwood, regional conservation officer for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "It's really still kind of a treat for me to run into one of them."

Human encounters with bobcats tend to involve a shadowy form darting across the road in front of a car, as bobcats and many other wild felines are hesitant to approach humans.

Robin Garwood, wildlife biologist for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, said a research project to study lynx and bobcats near the Salmon River didn't find a single cat in the region over the course of three years.

"Really, we don't have a feel for home ranges, what they are eating. Studies have been done in other states, but here, locally, we just don't have that information," she said.

Known unknowns

What is known about the bobcats is fairly innocuous, which might account for the lack of focus on them. Bobcats only weigh between 15 and 35 pounds, making them too small to seriously threaten livestock or big game animals.

"They will take a deer fawn or something along that line, maybe even a spring elk calf," said Craig White, wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "But they're not known to impact ungulate populations."

Bobcats, so far as biologists can tell, prey mostly on mice, voles, rabbits and other small prey. Cat sightings tend to go up after a spike in rabbit or rodent populations, as bobcats' reproduction varies depending on prey availability. Lee Garwood said male bobcats are more likely to be able to bring down a deer and it's more common when ungulates have been weakened by a harsh winter.

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of these cats is their ability to adapt, said Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Regan Berkeley.

"You'll find bobcats out in the woods, in the desert, in the sagebrush," she said. "They take advantage of different types of habitats, different types of prey."

This incredible adaptability makes it more unlikely that the animals could be threatened by development or disappearing habitat.

"The entire state is bobcat habitat," Lee Garwood said. "And, essentially, all bobcat habitat is occupied."

Unlike their larger feline cousins, bobcats tend to avoid the deep snow. The snow limits the small animals' mobility, he said, and in this region they tend to stick to the Silver Creek area and southern Blaine County, where the prey base is bigger and the snow is shallower.

Robin Garwood said she saw a bobcat three times near Stalker Creek on the Silver Creek Preserve, a location Lee Garwood said was a perfect place to spot one.

"That's a textbook piece of habitat for just about everything," he said, because of the proximity of agricultural land to a riparian zone, creating a good prey base.

"There's a lot of bobcat food down there," he added.

Setting the trap

Bobcats are still hunted in the state, mostly for their fur, but Berkeley said the predator is not as popular a prey as other species.

"There are certainly folks who do trap them, but as far as numbers of folks out for bobcats, it's nothing on the order of your deer or elk hunters, or even bear hunters," she said. "It's not that level of interest."

In the 2009-2010 season, trappers and hunters harvested 146 bobcats in the Magic Valley region, six in Blaine County. Berkeley said about 975 bobcats were harvested statewide that year, most of which were from trappers. Though Fish and Game requires all bobcat hunters to have a hunting or trapping license, no tag is required during the hunting season from mid-December through mid-February.

"Trapping is really specialized," Lee Garwood said. "You have some guys who are really, really good at it, but you don't have just hundreds of guys out there. You have maybe a double handful."

Successful trappers must report all bobcats taken in their seasonal reports and get the pelts tagged.

White said the form, which requires trappers to list how many animals they trapped over how many nights with how many traps, helps the department keep tabs on how the bobcat populations are trending.

"It's just an index, it's not a true estimate, but it's the best we have," he said. The index is defined in terms of catches per unit of effort, which factors in the ratio of bobcats caught to traps and nights spent trapping.

"The idea is that as the number of catches per unit effort declines, the population would be decreasing," White said.

Trappers will also weigh in if they notice a dip in populations, White said. Bobcats have one of the most valuable pelts available, running anywhere from slightly under $100 in a poor fur market to upwards of $800 for a large, perfect male pelt in good markets. Last year, the average pelt earned $248, far above the next most valuable fur—a $50 river otter pelt.

"Bobcat [trapping] more than anything is driven by the market," White said. He said that's not usually too much of a concern and populations fluctuate with market prices, but lately prices have been higher for longer than usual. This places additional pressure on bobcat numbers, White said.

"It concerns me," he said. "While sometimes populations bounce around, I'm hearing from various trappers that they feel bobcats are down in their areas."

Facing the future

But rest assured, Robin Garwood said: Even though bobcats remain elusive, they are likely not becoming endangered.

"Their populations don't seem to be, as a whole, dropping," she said. "Nobody's pushing them for listing, so no one is focusing on them."

Fish and Game does have a contingency plan in case of populations dropping severely, White said, including limiting hunts through the use of quotas as it does other species. He said he doesn't think a plan will be required in the near future, as bobcats are such an adaptable species, able to live anywhere on almost anything.

Lee Garwood said that he thinks bobcat numbers may have even been up in the region last year, thanks to the valley's vole explosion that meant havoc for gardeners but a huge prey base for predators. White said he agrees that bobcats are likely to remain in the state for a long time.

"I in no way think we're going to run out of bobcats anytime soon," he said.

Katherine Wutz:

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