Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pa. plans shorter bobcat season with unlimited kills

Proposed changes to bobcat seasons reflect expanding range

Sunday, January 24, 2010
By Deborah Weisberg, Special for the Post-Gazette

A predator native to Pennsylvania, bobcats can live up to 15 years and eat chipmunks and other small mammals. Changes in their prey's habitat have led to an increase in the bobcat population.

Every trapper and fur-taker could have a shot at a bobcat in Pennsylvania next winter, but they'd have a much shorter time frame in which to take one under a proposed change in the way the commonwealth manages the native, wild feline.

At its quarterly meeting in Harrisburg tomorrow and Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Game Commission board is expected to give preliminary approval to reducing the current 15-week season to just three weeks -- from mid-December to early January -- but opening it to all furtakers and trappers. Currently, a limited number of permits are awarded annually by lottery. In the 2009-10 season, just 1,780 out of 10,000 applicants drew permits.

Following a public comment period, the board could adopt the new regulations at its April meeting.

"Bobcats are thriving," said Game Commission biologist Matt Lovallo. "A more concentrated season would expand opportunities to many more people, and would be easier for us to administer, since we have to catalogue the harvest for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."

The federal agency requires careful state record-keeping of every bobcat taken in an effort to crack down on the international, illegal trade of endangered Eurasian lynx and other species that closely resemble bobcats.

Lovallo characterized the proposed regulations, which would allow hunting statewide, as "experimental, a trial," suggesting that the rules may require tweaking in future years.

"If the new regs lead to too high a harvest, we could scale back to two weeks," he said. "If the harvest is lower than expected, we could extend it for another week or two."

What is certain is that the number of bobcats roaming Penn's woods has dramatically increased in recent decades.

"Milder winters have boosted survival, and the sort of young growth forests that support bobcats' main prey -- voles, chipmunks and other small mammals -- have proliferated," said Lovallo.

Changes in habitat led to the lifting of a 30-year moratorium on bobcat trapping and furtaking in 2000. In that first season, 290 bobcat permits were issued.

"The maturation of the state's forests had an impact on the bobcats' decline. So did over-exploitation," he said. "There was actually a bounty on bobcats in the 1930s. We've come a long way since then."

The commission uses a variety of tools to measure bobcat populations, including incidental catches and releases by trappers. In the early 1990s, between 200 and 350 bobcats were released statewide. In 2006-07, the number was 1,900. The next year, it jumped to 2,200 and the year after that, 3105, Lovallo said.

Harvest numbers also have gone up steadily. In the 2008-09 season, 487 bobcats were harvested, an increase of 131 over the previous year. But while hunter success rates have stabilized in the past decade, Lovallo said, just 40 percent of people with permits get a bobcat.

It takes considerable skill, agrees Cliff Cessna of Penfield, Clearfield County, who guides for bobcats with tree walker hounds.

"It's quite a challenge because of the nature of the country the cats are in," he said. "They favor thick forested areas in steep, remote places. It's hard for people to get a feel for their range, which is vast. Bobcats have a central hub where they feel safe, but they'll range four or five miles a day to hunt."

He said they're especially difficult to find immediately after deer season -- when the proposed new bobcat season would start -- because they're on guard for hunters in the woods and have gut piles from field-dressed deer to scavenge, reducing their need to seek prey.

Cessna said he'd prefer a longer season than the three-week period proposed.

"It's not unusual to go out seven or eight times before you even see a bobcat, and of course you have to rest your dogs for a couple of days between hunts," he said.

And while he called the commission proposal a "bit of a gamble," he's willing to see how it goes.

"A lot of people are concerned that there would be too much pressure on bobcats, but I think the novelty will wear off and maybe the commission will lengthen the season," he said. "As a hound hunter, that would be more beneficial to me."

Pennsylvania has about 29,000 licensed furtakers, although very few hunt with hounds. They can use a variety of firearns, but most hunt with small caliber centerfire rifles, or shotguns with loads of No. 4 shot (larger buckshot is illegal), Lovallo said. Electronic and mechanical predator calls that mimic dying rabbits and other prey are legal in Pennsylvania.

Trappers, though, take 80 percent of bobcats harvested each year, Lovallo said, typically with coyote-set footholds and bobcat urine-scented attractant.

About half the entire bobcat harvest occurs after Jan. 1, Lovallo said. "Early January is prime-time for bobcat pelts because their fur is dense -- they have long, heavily spotted belly fur, at that time of year."

Bobcats are solitary creatures that den in brush piles or rock crevices. They mate at the end of February and give birth to an average of three kittens in May. While bobcats climb trees to rest and escape predators, they forage on the ground. Because they have an inherent vitamin B deficiency, bobcats are strictly carnivorous, Lovallo said.

Bobcats can live up to 15 years, with females averaging 18 pounds and males 24 pounds.

First published on January 24, 2010 at 12:00 am


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