In the Champlain Valley, bobcats appear frequently and their tracks are commonly seen on trails and in the woods.
What impact will the recently proposed State Department of Environmental Conservation's bobcat management plan have on the local population of these wild cats?
In the proposed management plan, the trapping season will be extended in the Adirondacks for two months to correspond with the current hunting season. Both seasons will run from Oct. 15 through Feb. 15. (See illustration for changes in other areas.)
It is estimated that the current bobcat population in New York is approximately 5,000 individuals. This number is estimated from the takes reported by trappers and hunters under current regulations. At this time, there is no way to account for animals killed by illegal harvest, disease or starvation, predation by other animals, road-kill or incidental harvest by hunters intending to kill other game.
Based on harvest data since 1977, DEC biologists believe that up to 1,000 bobcats can be harvested without threatening the statewide population. Data show that 400 to 500 bobcats have been taken annually in recent years. Projections in the plan conclude that the extended season and the expansion area will result in less than 100 additional takes statewide, leaving the total number taken well below 1,000.
Most objection to the plan so far centers on the morality of killing bobcats at all.
Each of us has our own threshold of comfort for this essential experience — killing animals. While no one in 2012 is dependent on killing bobcats to survive, there are some people in the Adirondacks who do kill bobcats for income. Trapping is challenging at best and physically demanding, and not very lucrative in any case. A bobcat pelt from the Adirondacks sells for between $35 and $150 at auction, after being skinned, dried, stored and transported.
Trappers are not by nature wanton killers any more than farmers are who shoot cows in the head to butcher them. Like farmers, hunters and trappers seek a humane death for the animals they harvest. They have as much at stake in a healthy wildlife population as anyone. That some traps catch unintended prey, that some traps are not humane, or that some trappers don't follow the rules is not in question nor is it the purview of this plan.
DEC's plan is to maintain a population of 5,000 bobcats, based on the premise that 5,000 bobcats are enough. Wildlife managers identify one of their objectives as providing for "the sustainable use and enjoyment of bobcat by the public," but as author and editor Phil Brown points out in a recent blog post, "I suspect that many people do not agree that the best way to enjoy bobcats is to shoot or trap them."
More bobcats, not fewer, could be advantageous if you put stock in ecotourism. How many tourists might come to the Adirondacks if bobcats appeared on our marketing brochures? National parks rely heavily on attracting visitors who want the chance to encounter wildlife.
At a recent program just prior to the release of the DEC plan, renowned bobcat expert Susan Morse asserted that biologists everywhere who are entrusted with protecting the well-being of bobcats must assure that the bobcats not taken by hunters or trappers have what they need to sustain their numbers. Bobcats not taken need to have not only sufficient prey but also sufficient access to mates and suitable shelter to rear young. Conservation of refuge habitat and accurate monitoring of local populations are key factors for a secure, viable bobcat population.
Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.