Although chances are low you’ll see a North American bobcat while hiking, the elusive nocturnal predators are prowling the Northeast in increasing numbers. In fact, the bobcat population has grown so large in New Hampshire that officials considered allowing the animals to be trapped and hunted again. Public outcry stopped that plan in its tracks, but the discussion raised some interesting questions: How many bobcats are too many? And should people do anything about it?
LARGER THAN LIFE
Bobcats live throughout North America. They get their name from their stubby tails, which are usually only 4 to 7 inches long. The animals are highly variable in color and pattern but are typically brownish-gray with darker spots and streaks, and their ears are tufted. They weigh between 15 and 35 pounds but can appear much larger thanks to their long legs. “People often estimate them at 50 or 60 pounds,” says Patrick Tate, a wildlife biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department who studies bobcats.
That would mean spotting one, of course. While sightings are on the rise, Tate says reports usually come from residents who have small pets or free-ranging chickens—attractive prey—or from drivers who glimpse bobcats along the road. The adult animals are solitary except during their mating season in February and March, and usually avoid areas people use, such as hiking trails.
“In my lifetime, I’ve seen four bobcats [in the wild], but I’m quite confident I’ve walked by many more,” Tate says. “They like to hide and let people walk on by. It amazes me, their ability to skulk away or flatten themselves and disappear.”
From 1809 to 1973, New Hampshire paid a bounty on bobcats, but by 1989, the population had dropped enough that the state halted its trapping and hunting seasons. The intention was to reopen the seasons once the population was stable, Tate says, but the 2015 proposal to do so drew opposition. Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine also saw a decline but continued their hunting seasons.
There wasn’t a count for bobcats in the 1980s, but hunters and trappers were bringing in fewer of the animals, which raised concerns for New Hampshire biologists. Despite the lack of exact numbers, bobcats have clearly rebounded since then—not only in New Hampshire but also in the states that continued their hunts.
Hunting wasn’t the cause of the decline, Tate says. Instead, he believes the drop was due to a series of very snowy winters in the 1970s. Populations are now up due to milder winters and a decrease in the fisher population. Bobcats have a hard time hunting in deep snow, and fishers (often called fisher cats, although they aren’t feline) attack young bobcats.
THE RIGHT BALANCE
By 2013, the New Hampshire bobcat population had rebounded to as many as 1,400 animals in fall and winter and 2,200 in spring and summer, according to a University of New Hampshire study. State biologists estimate the population has been growing about 10 percent per year since then.
Is that an appropriate amount or too many? It’s hard to say.
As the population—and therefore, competition for food—increases, bobcats are attacking more farm animals, dispersing farther, and increasingly being hit and killed by cars, Tate says. They also may be edging out the few Canada lynx in the state.
Without hunting or trapping, wildlife officials can’t manage the dynamics between the species, Tate says. “It’s sit back and let nature do its thing and see which population wins.”