Sunday, January 24, 2010

NH bobcat population is thriving

By Terry Date

Once rarely glimpsed, bobcats are sidling into view more often these days as their numbers rise and more of them pad across roads and over lawns.

Kingston resident Wendy Royce thought she was looking at a fox on her front lawn one morning last summer.

Her husband snapped a photograph. It was a small female bobcat on her stomach near some scattered birdseed.

It was startling and wonderful, seeing a wild cat in a settled area.

"Excited, very excited," Royce said of the sight.

Wildlife biologists in New Hampshire and Massachusetts said bobcats are more plentiful these days.

Twenty-two years ago, in 1988, when trapping bobcats was outlawed in New Hampshire, maybe only 100 of the spotted cats lived in the state, said John Litvaitis, wildlife professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Today, their numbers in the state could be as high as 1,000 or, at the low end, 200, he said, hesitant to venture a guess.

In Massachusetts, where trapping and hunting of the animals is still allowed, 50 of them were taken last year, the maximum number allowed, said Tom O'Shea, assistant director of wildlife for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 bobcats in the Bay State. Their numbers are expanding in the eastern part of the state, O'Shea said.

In New Hampshire, Litvaitis and graduate students are teaming with the Fish and Game Department on a four-year study to gauge the number of bobcats in the state, as well as their habits and movements.

Since December, as part of the study, trappers in southwestern New Hampshire have been capturing them in box traps.

Biologists drug the animals and place global positioning satellite collars on them to track their movements and identify critical habitat.

Just Wednesday, in Antrim, a trapper boxed a 38-pound male bobcat.

That's a whole lot of bobcat, Litvaitis said.

The animals, with their signature black-tipped ears, are all muscle, bone and fur. They have powerful hindquarters. Litvaitis said he has yet to see a 100-pound dog that a bobcat couldn't whip.

"These animals are 50 percent leg," he said.

There have been close to 100 verified sightings statewide since last spring, including locations across Southern New Hampshire.

"That is quite a remarkable number," Litvaitis said.

There was no way, a few years ago, that many bobcats would have been seen.

Last winter, one showed up at a car dealership in Portsmouth.

Ted Walski, a biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game who spends lots of time in the outdoors studying deer and wild turkey, said there are clearly more bobcats out there these days.

Bobcats are exclusively meat eaters, feeding on deer and wild turkey, as well as rodents and birds.

One reason why their numbers are up, Walski surmises, is because wild turkey populations are up.

Bobcats occur throughout the state, and Walski said he thinks there is at least one, maybe more, in each town.

The animals give birth to kittens at the bottom of brush piles or rock piles, and can live as long 10 to 12 years in the wild.

Mark Ellingwood, a New Hampshire Fish and Game wildlife biologist, said bobcat numbers will never be extremely high, like some other species, because the cats need a large area to range over for habitat.

Still, bobcat sightings are not uncommon in the southern part of New Hampshire.

For three years, as part of another study, the department has been collecting bobcat carcasses, often from road kills. A fair number of them have been picked up from Interstate 93 from Concord to the south, Ellingwood said.

He and others advise anyone who sees a bobcat to enjoy it. They are the last of the wild cats to call New Hampshire home.

"I think people are, in general, very curious about predators," Ellingwood said. "A wild cat is unique to our landscape. I think we are intrigued by the mystery."

Walski said backyard bird feeders in winter, when there is a foot or more of snow, might be a place to catch sight of a bobcat — there to snatch an unsuspecting dove or squirrel.


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