Bobcats a Wisconsin wildlife success story

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Among the handful of greatest Wisconsin wildlife recovery stories, most state residents can name the wild turkey, sandhill crane and gray wolf.

According to DNR estimates, northern Wisconsin had about 1,500 bobcats in 1980 and about 3,500 in 2016.

Each species had been extirpated or nearly so over the last 150 years but in recent decades returned to robust numbers.

Another wildlife comeback story has occurred over about the same timeline but is about as well known as the species is seen in broad daylight.

The bobcat is back.

"Bobcats are a true Wisconsin success story," said Nathan Roberts, Department of Natural Resources furbearer research scientist. 

The secretive, native feline is notoriously hard to observe and track. But Roberts said all signs point to a strong, even increasing population in Wisconsin and most other states.

Roberts and Shawn Rossler, DNR furbearer specialist, on Wednesday gave an update on bobcats to the Natural Resources Board.

The animals are crepuscular, tending to be most active at dawn and dusk as well as after dark.

Bobcats also are widely dispersed and extremely stealthy, which adds challenges to scientists as they work to monitor the animal's population.

Nationwide, bobcats are found in every state in the Lower 48, Roberts said. In 2008, each of those states except Florida reported a stable or increasing population of bobcats.

The U.S. population of bobcats increased from 1 million in 1981 to 3.5 million in 2008.

According to DNR estimates, northern Wisconsin had about 1,500 bobcats in 1980 and about 3,500 in 2016.

The population in southern Wisconsin is unknown at this point, Roberts said, but future work may allow the DNR to estimate the number.

Bobcats are found from Quebec to Mexico. The average Wisconsin bobcat weights from 20 to 35 pounds, but some adult males reach 50 pounds. Most bobcats stand 12 to 18 inches tall and are about 3 feet long.

Bobcats were officially declared returned to Crawford County by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The bobcat features a short, black-tipped tail that gives the animal its name.

Bobcats primarily prey on rabbits and small rodents, but they also kill birds and even an occasional deer.

Like most cats, the bobcat is territorial and largely solitary, although individual animals often has some overlap in home ranges.

The bobcat uses several methods to mark its territorial boundaries, including claw marks and deposits of urine or feces. The bobcat breeds from winter into spring and has a gestation period of about two months.

In recent years, bobcats have been increasingly documented in Wisconsin due to the rise in use of trail cameras. Yet most Badger State residents have never seen one with their own eyes.

The recovery of bobcats in Wisconsin is tied to one primary factor: protection from human harvest.

The species was subject to bounties from 1867 to 1964. Beginning in 1970, the harvest was regulated and a permit system was initiated in 1980 for northern Wisconsin.

The protections allowed the bobcat population to increase through the last half of the 20th century.

In 2014, permits were allowed for the first time in the state's southern zone.

Wisconsin's efforts to monitor bobcats have received a strong assist from hunters and trappers.

The sportsmen and women supported a fee increase to help fund a science-based program to track bobcats. Since 2010, the DNR has set aside $3 of every $6 bobcat permit application fee for research.

About 15,000 people apply for a harvest tag in Wisconsin each year.

The funding has helped the DNR use high-tech methods, including GPS collars, to track and assess the bobcat population.

Over the last three years, the DNR put GPS collars on 61 bobcats in Wisconsin.

"We’ve worked closely with trappers to collar bobcats the trappers did not want to or could not keep," Roberts said.

The secretive, native feline is notoriously hard to observe and track.

Bobcats and other animals caught in modern leg-hold traps or cable restraints can be successfully released unharmed.

Research led by Iowa State University found differences as well as similarities in the DNA of bobcats from various areas of the central U.S., including a link between bobcats captured in southwestern Wisconsin and those in southern Iowa.

The finding suggests bobcats may be migrating into southern Wisconsin from Iowa, rather than coming from northern Wisconsin.

The latest population estimates and other research allowed the DNR to increase the bobcat kill quota in recent years.

This year, it was doubled to 750 animals statewide.

Wisconsin's bobcat hunting and trapping seasons are divided into early and late time periods. These seasons for each zone can be closed early, if needed, to stay within approved harvest quotas. 

Time periods for 2017-'18 are Oct. 15 to Dec. 25 and Dec. 26 to Jan. 31.

Successful hunters and trappers must register their bobcat by phone within 24 hours and, additionally, must register their bobcat in person by the fifth day of the month following the date of take.

"The bobcat is still the source of much discussion across the state," Roberts said. "Since many people never see them, it's a cryptic animal. But they are definitely widespread and doing well."

Roberts said he is confident the bobcat population can sustain the current level of harvest and the department will continue to closely monitor the population.

The science used by Roberts and his associates at the DNR has been impressive. The agency should be commended for its work on bobcats, and be held accountable to help keep bobcats a vital, stable part of our state's ecosystems.