Sunday, March 08, 2009

Montana's big cats are thriving

March 5, 2009

By DIANE TIPTON
For the Tribune

The more adaptable the species, the more likely it is to survive over time. That may be why today there are an estimated 600 million housecats in the world and Canada lynx are a threatened species.

All domestic cats descended from a wild, tabby-like sub-species of cat that lived in North Africa 130,000 years ago — felis silvestris lybica— according to Dr. Stephen O'Brien, an expert on cat genetics at the National Cancer Institute. The Institute studies diseases that cats and humans have in common.

O'Brien said it is likely that these wild cats "self-domesticated" beginning about 10,000 years ago when humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Human settlements provided wild cats a new, concentrated source of rodents, garbage and protection.

In the United States, many descendents of these cats now enjoy canned food, luxurious shelter, occasional airplane trips, toys and even "cat furniture."

On the other hand, their wild relatives face shrinking and fragmented habitats and human misunderstanding.

Montanans share the outdoors with three rarely seen native wild cats: the bobcat, Canada lynx and mountain lion.

"We are privileged to live in a nearly intact ecosystem with three native cat species roaming the landscape," said Rich DeSimone, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist responsible for mountain lion research. "These cats are here because they can, to varying degrees, still access the high quality habitats that have sustained them for thousands and thousands of years."

The bobcat and lynx are closely related. Some evidence suggests that the bobcat may have colonized North America first, followed later by the Canada lynx.

The bobcat is confined generally to the 48 contiguous states, while the lynx historically occupied the Northeast, Great Lakes states, the Northern Rocky Mountains, the Cascades and the southern Rocky Mountains, as well as Europe and Siberia.

The federal Endangered Species Act protects Canada lynx, once hunted and trapped for their fur, from all hunting in the U.S., except in Alaska.

The more abundant and resilient bobcat is classified as a furbearer in Montana that may be hunted and trapped under harvest seasons regulated by FWP.

Bobcat and lynx are territorial, solitary and need room to roam. Bobcats generally prefer a 10- to 30-square-mile territory and lynx a 20- to 35-square-mile area, depending on the availability of prey and other factors.

Male cats will not allow another male to use their home range. Females are similarly territorial, though their territories may fall within or intersect a male's. Cats maintain their boundaries by scent marking.

Bobcats at maturity weigh an average of about 21 pounds, but their weight can range from 14-40 pounds. The opportunistic bobcat eats grasshoppers, beetles, porcupines, snakes and birds, although diets vary by region and season.

An adult lynx in Montana may weigh in the range of 18-30 pounds. Compared to a bobcat, a lynx's longer legs and disproportionately large feet help it move over deep snow.

The Canada lynx is so dependent on the snowshoe hare for food that lynx populations tend to rise and fall with hare numbers.

Lynx will also eat mice, voles, birds and some other small prey. The lynx's tail has a black tip, a key identifier, while the underside of the bobcat's black tail is white.

The mountain lion, found from Canada to Argentina, is the largest of Montana's wild cats at 100 to 180 pounds. They too are classified as a game species in Montana.

Recent research by FWP indicates the mountain lion's home range averages between 100 and 200 square miles for males and between 50 and 70 square miles for females.

Subadult female lions prefer to establish their home range as close to their mother's as possible, while subadult male lions disperse from their mother's home range in an effort to maintain genetic diversity.

Male lions are known to disperse remarkable distances, in some cases more than 600 miles, DeSimone said.

"The future of Montana's wild cats will depend upon our continued willingness to allow them the habitat and freedom of movement they need to reproduce and fill their traditional territories," DeSimone said.

http://www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20090305/LIFESTYLE05/903050349

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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org

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