It’s on the prowl from three hours before sunset until midnight, and again before dawn ‘til three hours after sunrise. Each night, it moves two to seven miles, mostly on the same route.
Along the way it visits, like the humans in whose shadow it lives, known locales. But its stomping grounds are a hollow log or two, a brush pile or thicket, and caverns hidden in rock ledges.
It’s a bobcat, and only rarely does it cross paths with people. Or so we thought. In fact, bobcats are among us, quietly, stealthily, making their way over hill and dale.
Dusk on an early winter’s eve. Light snow is falling on Interstate 87; the highway is nearly obscured. Mine is the only car on the road. I’m traveling with family members through New York’s Adirondack Mountains.
We enter a cut in a mountainside, an opening that’s lined with 60-foot-high granite ledges. Suddenly, our headlights spot a reflection where there should be none. The beams meet a yellow-green glow, the eyeshine of a tawny, hunched-over creature that emerges from the swirling snow like a wraith: a bobcat.
We skid to a stop. For a heartbeat or two, the bobcat does the same, gazing at us with seeming curiosity. Then, with a flick of the short tail for which it’s named, it’s gone, vanished into a crack in the cliffs.
“This cat’s ability to keep a low profile is key to its success,” says biologist Luke Hunter, President of Panthera, an organization that works to ensure the future of the world’s wild cats through science and conservation. “People often don’t realize they’re sharing space with a bobcat.”
Cats on the comeback trail?
From southern Canada to northern Mexico – the range of the bobcat, Lynx rufus – these seldom seen felines seem to be on the comeback trail. Take forester Jim Stewart’s experience. Stewart, who works for Plum Creek Timber in Maine, glimpsed a bobcat in March; the encounter happened in the western part of the state near Sugarloaf Mountain Resort. The forest manager was driving to a meeting when he saw the bobcat along a roadside. But the view was fleeting. The cat jumped over a snowbank, remembers Stewart, then disappeared into the woods.
With sightings of these phantoms happening more frequently in northern New England, upstate New York and other regions of the country, wildlife ecologist John Litvaitis of the University of New Hampshire wants to understand why.
One possibility, he says, is that bobcat and human now live cheek-by-jowl; for example, bobcats frequent backyard birdfeeders. The feeders attract squirrels and other small mammals, a staple of the cat’s current diet.
Found in most continental U.S. states, bobcats are twice as large as housecats. The carnivores – whose favorite meals, when they can find them, are cottontail rabbits – live six to eight years in the wild, says Litvaitis, and have few enemies but, perhaps, humans.
Track of the cat
To conduct bobcat research, Litvaitis enlists the help of live-trappers. Once caught, a bobcat is weighed, measured and examined to determine its overall health. The biologist takes small tissue samples for DNA analysis, then outfits the cat with a collar that uses GPS technology to track its wanderings.
In findings published this month in the journal Wildlife Biology, Litvaitis and other scientists, including lead author Derek Broman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division, report that northern New England bobcats prefer areas with limited human development and large numbers of streams for use as travel corridors. In New Hampshire and the neighboring states of Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, the cats select places with extensive wetlands.
More than 1,500 miles to the south in Texas, a similar study of bobcat habitat choices is underway. “We’re trying to learn how the cats coexist with humans in urban landscapes like Dallas-Fort Worth,” says Broman.
Past is prologue?
In rural northern New England, early accounts of bobcats are sketchy. Enough information exists, however, to suggest that the cats’ number and distribution have changed significantly over the past several decades.
Bobcats in New Hampshire, relatively common in the 1800s, were scarce by the middle of the next century. What might have caused the decline? Could it have been trapping for fur; an influx of coyotes competing for the same food sources; or changes in the forest itself, and therefore bobcat prey? It’s likely the latter, says Litvaitis.
Forests in New Hampshire followed a similar growth pattern to that of bobcat populations. Until the late 1800s, more than 50 percent of the state remained cleared for agricultural fields, the favorite habitat of cottontail rabbits and therefore bobcats.
Then new modes of transportation allowed Midwestern farmers to market their crops as far away as the Eastern Seaboard. New England farm holders could no longer compete on large scales; many farms were abandoned. Trees moved in and farms eventually became forests.
By 1960, much of New Hampshire’s farmland was gone; grouse, woodcock and cottontails – and bobcats – went with it.
From farm to forest, forest to pavement
Now bobcat habitat in the state is patchily distributed. Populations of the cats may be separated by suburban developments and by roads. Across the U.S., traffic volume is often the best predictor of bobcat mortality.
Litvaitis is testing the effects of highways on bobcats’ genetic diversity and population subdivisions. The results might alter the fate of cats like a 60-pound feline killed on Route 125 in southeastern New Hampshire. Was it making its way from one habitat fragment to another? No one knows.
In Native American lore, the bobcat represents clear vision in dark places, vigilance and patience. To survive into the next century and beyond, bobcats will need those traits, as well as an ability to share territory with another animal of farmland and forest, suburb and city: Homo sapiens.