Bobcats feature in Lyndeborough library program

LYNDEBOROUGH – They are twice the size of your pet cat and sometimes they can take down a deer.

They are bobcats, and the brutal winter of 2014-15 meant bad news and good news for them in New Hampshire.

On the one hand, the cold and snow meant starvation for many young cats. On the other hand, the decimated bobcat population means that state Fish and Game Department plans to restart a trapping season are on hold.

Two wildlife stewards from Fish and Game were at the J. A. Tarbell Library recently to give a slide show about bobcats to a full meeting room at the library.

“Winters are very hard on young bobcat,” said Doug Whitfield, whose presentation with Dennis Walsh included photos from a four-year University of New Hampshire study funded by the federal Wildlife Restoration Program.

In January the state Fish and Game Commission voted to have the department draw up a
proposal for a bobcat hunt. Protesters opposed the idea, holding signs saying “Save our wild cat.”

For more than 200 years there were no restrictions on hunting, and for most of the 20th century bounties were paid until the elusive felines were almost extinct here in the 1980s, when Fish and Game closed the hunting and trapping seasons.

The population rebounded, and last fall it was at a point where the agency talked about a possible trapping season. But the severe winter seemed to have killed so many of the animals that officials are rethinking that plan, Whitfield said during the question and answer session that followed the talk.

The bounty program ended in 1973 when state officials became alarmed that bobcats would go the way of the lynx, a larger and similar-looking wild cat. Found only in the snowier northern areas of New Hampshire, lynx were entirely gone by then, although there is now evidence of a tiny population.

The last time trapping was allowed was in 1989.

Since then the bobcat population has rebounded, from less than 200, mostly in the southwestern part of the state, to current estimates, about 1,400 animals in fall and winter to 2,200 in the spring and summer.

The University of New Hampshire study found the cats are all over the state, even on the Seacoast, where they hadn’t been seen for decades. And the researchers found people were happy to participate in the study, sending more than 1,000 photos and descriptions to the project’s website.

“Everyone’s gaga about bobcats,” said UNH professor John Litvaitis, leader of the research project, in a story in the University of New Hampshire Magazine.

“It’s an animal that exemplifies the things we like about nature. If you’ve got bobcats, the world’s still pretty good.”

The stubby-tailed wild cats communicate like their domestic counterparts – they growl, hiss and purr. They can also scream in a way that will “give you a few chills up your back,” Whitfield said.

Their prey has changed along with changes in wildlife and the landscape. Cottontail rabbits were once a prime source of food, but they are now endangered in New Hampshire. Turkey are plentiful and are thought to have become a major source of bobcats’ food, along with staples like squirrels and chipmunks.

Solitary and territorial, the cats actively seek prey at dawn and dusk, and their lives are hard and short – they can live around 10 years, but in the wild it’s usually only five or six, Whitfield said.

He and Walsh also showed photos from the University of New Hampshire study that featured a live trapping program and radio collars that allowed study of the animals’ numbers and movements.

One reason for bobcats’ prevalence in southwestern New Hampshire, they said, could be the 100-mile swath of forest from Woodsville, N.H. to the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts – a major wildlife corridor.

Walsh also talked about the evolution of wildlife conservation in the United States and the “North American model of conservation,” in which people own the animals, unlike Europe where wealthy landowners owned them.

A federal tax in 1937 on manufacturers of firearms and other sporting equipment established by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration helped states manage and often bring back wildlife populations.

But funding of the Fish and Game Department now faces a major shortfall, the stewards said, while responsibilities have increased to cover traffic control, hiker rescue, exotic animals and circus animals.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or
kcleveland@cabinet.com.