Bobcats were experts in social isolation long before COVID-19, depending on hiding and stealth to stalk their prey. They don’t mingle with other bobcats unless it’s mating time. And that makes them hard to count.
Like some other species of wildlife, including wild turkey, it seemed there were no bobcats to count in Ohio for almost 100 years. But scientists have been able to determine that there are now two resident populations in the state.
The Wildlife Council removed bobcats from the lists of endangered or threatened species in 2014, although they are still protected and cannot be hunted or trapped.
“I think it’s a pretty impressive comeback, and one of the modern-day wildlife recovery stories,” said Katie Dennison, wildlife biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, whose main responsibility is monitoring, research and management of Ohio’s 16 furbearer species.
As was the case with the turkey, “there were no hunting regulations for the bobcat, and with the loss of forested habitat, the population began to decline,” she said. “We believe they were extirpated in the mid-1800s.”
The first recorded sighting of a bobcat in “modern” times was in 1946. There were occasional sightings from the time of extinction to the 1960s, but bobcats weren’t seen consistently until the early 2000s — at least not enough to say they were taking up residence.
Unlike the turkey, bobcats were not reintroduced in Ohio.
“The forests had returned, and there were growing populations in surrounding states,” Dennison explained. “Bobcats can disperse long distances, especially young males looking to establish a range.”
Thanks to immigrants from other states, two populations became established: One in the southeast portion of the state, in Noble and surrounding counties, the other in southern Ohio, in Jackson, Vinton and surrounding counties, she said.
Since the early 2000s, the Division of Wildlife has conducted or provided funding for several bobcat research projects, including some with researchers at Ohio University.
One project was determining the genetics of the two resident populations by testing bobcats that have been hit on the road or were accidentally trapped. Biologists found that while the population in southeastern Ohio was established by bobcats that had migrated from other states, it has become genetically distinct.
The population in southern Ohio still shares genes with bobcats in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. Not only that, the southeastern population is growing more rapidly and appears to be self-sustaining.
“The southern population may still need immigrants to sustain it,” Dennison said.
The number of counties where bobcats have been reported has increased since the study began. They’ve been spotted in western Ohio, the far northeast, even heavily populated areas in the central part of the state.
“There seems to have been an increase in bobcat populations and sightings over the past 20 years,” Dennison said. “We do see an increasing trend in sightings, as well as an increase in distribution in more counties.”
That means there could be more resident populations that haven’t been discovered yet. Biologists will continue to collect bobcat data in the hope that they will be able to give population estimates in the next few years, she said. That will enable wildlife officials to make a management plan.
Difficult to count
Again, counting them won’t be easy. While more bobcats may be seen, both visually and on trail cams, it’s still up to the public to report them.
“There’s a difficulty in relying on the public for sightings,” Dennison said. “As they become more common, people are less likely to report them.”
Remember, they don’t hang out with other bobcats except during breeding season. Kittens are only raised by the mother; they stick with her from nine months to a year, then disperse as what scientists call “subadults.”
Males will travel a longer distance than females to establish a territory, Dennison said. Females have smaller home ranges, and they don’t allow much overlap in territory with other females.
“Unless it’s a daughter, then an overlap might be tolerated,” she said.
Subadults leave before new kittens arrive. That’s usually in the spring, in March, April and May, although later litters have been known to happen.
Bobcats can reproduce every year, although they don’t have to, and average two to three kittens in a litter. They have den sites but don’t necessarily stay in the same one; they might move locations several times.
And “den” can be a lot of things, “a hole in a tree, a pile of sticks, anything they can get underneath,” Dennison said. “They aren’t dug, they’re found.”
At two months, the kittens venture further from the den. Through the rest of the summer, they go out and learn to hunt with their mother.
“They’re quite skilled hunters,” she said. “They’re ambush predators. They hide and depend on the element of surprise.”
A 2014 report by Suzanne Prange, adjunct faculty at OU and director of the Appalachian Wildlife Research Institute, and Christa Rose of Eating patterns. Native Species Support, examined stomach contents of deceased bobcats to find out what they eat.
They discovered the Eastern cottontail rabbit was the most popular item on the menu, but white-tail deer made for the most caloric intake, especially in the winter. Adult bobcats may catch and kill raccoons, possums, groundhogs, and even beavers, the scientists said, while subadults may rely on smaller mammals and rodents, like moles or shrews, for their energy demands.
Of course, it’s impossible to tell by stomach contents whether the animal the bobcat ate was hunted or scavenged. And while it’s hard to imagine a cat that maxes out at about 30 pounds taking down an adult deer, bobcats can do it “using several quick bites at the throat, neck, or base of the skull,” according to the report.
The prominence of deer in the bobcats’ winter diet may be because smaller mammals and rodents are less available, or because harsh conditions weaken the deer and make them more vulnerable. If it’s up to the secretive bobcat, we may never know.
Ironically, one of the best ways that scientists have to count bobcats is probably the biggest threat to their recovery. A report by Prange, Rose and other scientists released in 2019 notes that Ohio has “the nation’s fifth largest traffic volume, the tenth largest highway network, and fourth largest interstate system.”
“Our study revealed that the overall impacts of roads on Ohio’s recovering bobcat population, based on its current distribution, is high,” the scientists concluded.
Aside from adding warning signs, or perhaps culverts or crossing areas for wildlife, there’s not a lot that can be done to lessen the impact of road traffic.
But perhaps the study of road casualties will lead to management strategies that will better the bobcats’ chances. Meanwhile, Dennison said, “The bobcat is a success story, and they continue to do well.”
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