Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Michael ScottPlain Dealer Reporter
Bobcats are coming back in strength in the Buckeye State.
The snub-tailed big cat -- once all but extinct in Ohio -- has made a comeback similar to the equally elusive coyote in recent years.
Bobcats have been unofficially sighted in nearly all of the state's 88 counties over the last decade. The Ohio Division of Wildlife substantiated 51 of those reports last year alone, more than triple the amount from just three years earlier.
"Nobody knows how many bobcats are actually out there exactly, because they are elusive and avoid people -- just like coyotes," said Damon Greer. "But their population is growing, we know that for sure.
"And I bet there's a lot more out there than even we realize."
Maybe so, but seeing even one bobcat in the wild is still a thrill for hunters, hikers and even veteran biologists like Greer and Suzie Prange, who works at the state's Waterloo Wildlife Research Station in Athens.
Each veteran biologist has seen only one. Greer saw his this year while hiking in Harrison County in eastern Ohio, near the Ohio River. Prange saw hers several years ago in Tennessee, where they are less rare - unprotected and hunted for game.
The species can be hunted in 38 states, but is protected as endangered by state laws in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa and as "threatened" in New Jersey.
"They say the true measure of a woodsmen - or woodswoman - is whether they've ever seen a bobcat in the wild," Prange said. "I think that's part of the mystique. They are a connection to our past, a symbol of our heritage as pioneers."
Prange said bobcats could once be found in much greater abundance throughout Ohio, but as our ancestors cleared the land for farms and for homes, the big cats moved out.
By 1850, they were considered gone from the state.
But as more Ohio farms went fallow in parts of the south and central areas of the state as the state industrialized, trees reclaimed the farmlands - giving animals like coyotes and bobcats the needed cover to move back.
"They're colonizing first in the southeastern corner of the state," Prange said. "I don't think you'll ever see them in abundance, though, near Cleveland. They prefer the cover of woodlands."
Most recently, there was a verified bobcat sighting in Lake County in 2004 and one this year in Ashtabula County. In previous years, there were confirmed sightings in Geauga, Summit and Portage counties and plenty of unconfirmed sightings in other northeastern Ohio counties including Cuyahoga.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife began monitoring bobcats in 1997, using field surveys and follow-up investigations of sightings. The research was paid for in part by the Wildlife Diversity and Endangered Species fund.
Ohio residents help fund that program if they check off a box on their state income tax return or buy cardinal license plates.
Prange said only a clear photo of a bobcat or its tracks or a body is definitive proof that a sighting was a bobcat.
The most conclusive counts come from road kill, like the two found in Belmont County earlier this month. One carcass was found along Interstate 70 early last week and the other was found Friday along Interstate 470 in St. Clairsville.
"Boy, when you start getting road kill, you know that there's a lot of them and that they're moving around," Greer said. "It's strange to say, but a few dead ones on the road is the best proof that there are a lot more live ones in the wild."
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org