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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Bobcat population growing in South County

Bobcat Research in RI and Project Status Update
By Sarah Riley in DEM’s Wild Rhode Island

The forests of New England have been home to bobcats for centuries. Although their reclusive nature makes them a rare sighting, every so often they can be observed hunting in backyards or walking across a street.

Bobcats are the most numerous and widely distributed wild felids in North America. They can be found in the boreal regions of Canada, almost every state in the U.S., and even down into southern Mexico.

Over time, this species has adapted to live in a variety of habitats, including swamps, grass or shrubland, forest, mountains and agricultural land.

There are several sub-groups which vary slightly in habitat, appearance and prey selection.

Those found in New England (Lynx rufus rufus) average between 13 and 30 lbs. and measure between 32 and 34 inches long. Their fur is reddish to tawny brown with black spots and stripes along their body; large white spots adorn the back of their tufted ears.

The tail is “bobbed” and only about four inches long on average, although it can be a bit longer.
Individuals found in the Northeast tend to have less spotting on their coat than bobcats in other parts of North America, causing them to be mistakenly reported as mountain lions.

In New England, the bobcat’s diet relies mostly on cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares, but they will also eat small mammals such as meadow voles, mice, chipmunks and birds. They will even kill and eat a white-tailed deer, attacking it while it is bedded down.

The mating season begins in February or March, and birthing will begin in May or June, when a female will have 2 to 5 kittens and rear them by herself.

As they are primarily solitary animals, the only time they spend in groups is during the mating season, or when a mother is with her kittens. The kittens will often stay with the mother through their first winter, sometimes until the breeding season. The young males tend to leave the maternal home range earlier than their female siblings.

Recent research suggests a nationwide increase in bobcat populations. In 2009, 40 states reported evidence of stable or increasing bobcat populations.

Florida was the only state which reported a decreasing population, which may be correlated with land development and habitat loss (Roberts and Crimmins, 2010). Rhode Island seems to be witnessing a continued increase in population of bobcats.

The Division has been monitoring bobcat sightings since 1999 and since then, there have been zero sightings in Bristol County, 20 in Kent County, 3 in Newport County, 37 in Providence County and Washington County received the most, with 57 reliable reports, often accompanied by photographs.

Somewhat surprisingly, the most reports were from South Kingstown with 25 total reported sightings, more than twice as many as Westerly, which received the second highest number of reports.

There could be many reasons why there have been more bobcat sightings; habitat loss and fragmentation in their historic ranges could force them to live and hunt closer to people, or it could be that reports are more likely to be made in areas where people do not expect to see bobcats, such as the less-forested, coastal neighborhoods.

Bobcats have large home ranges, requiring them to cross roads frequently, potentially causing them to be seen more often. Due to their habitat choices and diffident nature, getting a reliable estimate and evaluation of the population is not easy.

However, a team from the Division of Fish and Wildlife and the University of Rhode Island (URI) is working on just that. The Division is working in conjunction with URI to research southern Rhode Island’s bobcat population.

Using radio collars and GPS technology, the biologists can collect data and analyze bobcat distribution patterns, home-range sizes and relative abundance. Information on how landscape patterns influence bobcat movement and habitat choice will be essential for the future of bobcat management in Rhode Island, particularly in the face of urban development.

Most of the research is being conducted in Washington County within the state wildlife management areas.

Large box traps are set up in areas where the cats are likely to travel. Brush and leaves are put on and around the trap to disguise it and various baits and lures are put around the trap to entice the bobcats.
Bobcats are very visually oriented, so the team has even put baubles hanging from strings around to appeal to their natural curiosity.

So far, the team has caught and collared one bobcat, although there have been many photographs taken by trail camera around the traps. Unfortunately, after four months of tracking, that bobcat was struck by a car and killed in February.

Thanks to a group of concerned citizens, the collar was retrieved and the team was able to recover all of the data that was collected on the bobcat’s movements. The team still has many traps and cameras set up to capture any movement through the research area in the future.

Rhode Island is fortunate to have such a beautiful and important animal living within its borders. It is essential that we properly manage this apex predator for the health of our wildlife communities and ecosystems.

If you spot a bobcat in your area, or if you have questions about them or the research conducted by the Division and its partners, please call our office at (401) 789-0281.

Literature Cited

Roberts N. M. and S. Crimmins. 2010. Bobcat Population Status and Management in North America: Evidence of Large-Scale Population Increase. J. of Fish and Wildlife Mgmt: 1(2). Young S. P. 1978. The Bobcat of North America. Wildlife Management Institute Publishing. 1st ed