The Arizona Republic
Nov. 24, 2006 12:00 AM
While half of the world's wild cats are in danger, the bobcat appears to be expanding its range in North America.
Its resiliency is the topic of Bobcat: Master of Survival, the first major book about the species in 40 years.
Its author, Kevin Hansen, has worked as a park ranger and biologist all over the country and lives in Cave Creek, an area on the Valley's urban perimeter where the tufted-eared, short-tailed felines can be seen increasingly.
Hansen said he was astonished to find thousands of studies of bobcats. He had done a similar book on mountain lions and found mere dozens of studies, largely because mountain lions are not harvested for their fur, he concluded.
That anomaly is the crux of his new book, Hansen said in a recent interview.
"Bobcats are the most exploited and the most studied wild cats in the world," Hansen said.
He believes the two facts are closely connected.
Hansen wrote the book to examine the seeming robustness of the U.S. bobcat population against the fluctuating history of the fur business and other human activities. He has concluded that both bobcat scholarship and population follow the turns of the fur industry, particularly in the past three decades.
The bulk of bobcat research dates from the 1970s and 1980s, an era when their pelts soared in value.
At that time, a worldwide ban on killing endangered spotted cats, such as leopards and ocelots, created a fur market demand for a substitute.
Trappers and furriers picked up the slack with bobcat pelts, according to Hansen. In a single year, the annual bobcat harvest jumped from 5,000 to 90,000. And at the height of the market, pelts were selling for more than $350 apiece.
Hansen speculates the species was saved by the stock market crash of 1987, when discretionary purchases including fur coats went the way of junk bonds.
Many furriers failed, and trappers were suddenly lucky to raise $50 a pelt.
Bobcat scholarship had soared with the price of bobcat pelts because wildlife agencies needed to manage the bobcat population more closely with the increased trapping.
"The big message of the book has nothing to do with science, but rather that economics is driving management of fur-bearing animals, independent of population dynamics," the author said.
Hansen is often appreciative of bobcat management by state wildlife programs, including Arizona's, but has severe doubts that anyone knows how many of the creatures exist, despite the use of radio-tracking devices and other tools. He said wildlife agencies haven't been able to assess the impact of the fur business on the animals.
The book provides a fairly exhaustive look at how the cats hunt, kill, breed and die - and how they coexist with humans, perhaps their only obstacle.
The cats make dangerous pets; keeping them in Arizona is illegal. Bobcats range from southern Canada to central Mexico and from California to Maine and are making a comeback in the Midwest, where they were hunted and trapped out.
Hansen describes the bobcat as "an animal that hides in the open." Although it is common in North America, it is rarely seen, Hansen said. Bobcats hide, sometimes for hours, studying their prey. Their coloring is adapted for stealth.
Maybe the cat's air of mystery makes Hansen's first-person accounts of bobcat encounters particularly compelling.
Amid the book's ample scientific findings and economic theorizing, the biologist chances upon a cat transfixed by a beautiful sunrise over the Florida Everglades. Another, slowly angling toward Hansen in a California wildlife preserve, finally urinates on the naturalist's truck tire and leaves.
Hansen foresees a growing threat to bobcats. Habitat destruction can only rise as development gobbles up more grasslands, wetlands, forests and deserts across the U.S. Hansen takes comfort in Arizona's golf courses, which produce ample rabbits, a bobcat dietary staple.
But worrisome, Hansen said, is the fact that both the number of annual bobcat kills and the price for their pelts are on the rise.