Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are a native carnivore of many parts of the United States. Unfortunately, by 1850, in the United States, most were extirpated, or nearly so. This followed pioneer settlement, associated human population expansion, and the industrial revolution. Because of this, records of bobcats were rare until the mid-1900s. The population re-establishment began around 2000. Today, 41 states use some sort of bobcat population monitoring.
These are states that have been pushing for bobcat programs all across the country. Because the bobcat lives in a wide variety of areas, with variations in its diet, they play essential roles in the geographic regions in which they live.
In the 1800s, government-mandated hunting existed to maintain healthy population sizes, supplying the fur trade, as well as control the predation of lower trophic level animals. Into the 1900s, the annual hunting numbers increased to nearly 400 bobcats per year, depending on the state. This number rapidly declined in the 1970s. When many states changed the status of the bobcat from nuisance to game animal, the trend of decreasing bobcat populations had been occurring around the entire United States.
This decline in the population of the bobcat poses several problems to both humans and the natural environment. These problems range from the economic value of a pelt to the collapse of environmental systems with the removal of a top-level trophic predator.
The economy is an aspect of society that is continually influencing human decisions. From the 1800s to the late 1900s, bobcat pelts were extremely desirable. This trend was seen primarily in Europe, where the United States was making most of its sales. This change in economic value for bobcat pelts dramatically increased the hunting and trapping of this species, which in turn led to its decline.
Because the bobcat is a carnivore, it serves an essential purpose in an ecosystem. This purpose is maintaining control of the lower-level secondary consumers that make up their diets, such as the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). If left without predation to maintain sustainable numbers in these populations, the vegetation of the areas in these environments would become increasingly low. This herbivore population growth can lead to high erosion levels, which can lead to problems with water pollution.
The effects of human activity can be evident and predictable. The clearing of land for agriculture and development, if those areas are later left unused, can see dramatic before and after differences in plant and animal populations. There are other changes that humans can spark, that may be less obvious and longer-lasting. Nutrients start in the soil and work their way up from plants, to herbivores, to carnivores, and back to plants. Therefore, the land and composition of an ecosystem’s baseline are incredibly important when considering the forecast of the entire ecosystem.
Bobcats consider how much of the forest is available to them that allows them shelter from larger predators as well as people. Bobcats will take advantage of a wide variety of resources on a daily to weekly basis but remain to prefer areas that are less developed. Humans are prevalent in the United States. Therefore there are minimal land options that have not been occupied in some way by humans. Because of this, bobcat habitats have been dwindling in size for the last two centuries. Typically, bobcats have territories that span over a wide area and rarely overlap with one another. This need for vast habitat territories is a significant cause of interaction with humans, as competition for territories is increasing.
Because of this, bobcats must attempt to live in highly-populated human areas. Meaning that there is an increase in unwanted interactions between bobcats and humans; these interactions can become dangerous for both the humans and the animals involved.
Finally, with an increase in demand for bobcat pelts in Europe, the decline in the bobcat populations was a hit to the economy. Because bobcats are the only spotted felid that it is still legal to trap in the world, there is an even higher demand for this animal’s fur. Bobcat fur can be sold anywhere from $400 to $100,000 for a single pelt. This high price value is a problem in and of itself. When the cost of hides increases, the incentive to trap or kill the species also increases. These increases create a positive feedback loop of the population steadily declining while the price of pelts is steadily growing.
There are many potential causes for this decline in the bobcat population in the Northeast. But, overall, the future is bright for the species. Due to significant conservation efforts from the United States Division of Wildlife, Fish and Wildlife Service, and IUCN, the bobcat population is currently on the rise. As of 2016, the IUCN has listed the bobcat as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List.
These studies are examples of the work that is being put into this species to manage the population. There are beneficial breeding programs, education programs, and other hunting and trapping regulations currently in place across the country to help maintain this species into the future.
How You Can Help
In the case of finding a bobcat kitten, please leave it be. Mother bobcats will leave their kittens in safe places while they hunt; They will come back for them when finished. The parents are likely just hiding nearby, waiting for you to leave! If you would remove the kittens from their hiding spot, the mother will not be able to find them and will abandon the young after they are touched or moved by humans. The best thing to do in these situations is to leave the animals alone and to resist giving unnecessary care.