CLAREMONT — In a lecture about bobcats, New Hampshire Fish and Game wildlife stewards discussed recent studies about the state’s bobcat population and the importance of these studies to maintain the species.
Doug Whitfield and Dennis Walsh spoke to an audience of 25 people in Claremont City Hall on Thursday about the American bobcat, whose numbers have resurged in the state over the last decade. The discussion was a public event hosted by the Claremont Conservation Commission.
“This region [of the Connecticut River Valley] is probably the finest bobcat habitat we have found in the whole state,” Whitfield said.
The land in Cheshire and Sullivan counties provides bobcats a long, safe corridor to travel, and an abundance of wetlands that are a valuable source of food during the winters.
Historically, the bobcat is one of three species of large cat to inhabit New England, alongside the lynx and eastern mountain lion, which went extinct between the late 1800s and early 1900s. The average female bobcat weighs about 17 pounds and the male averages 30 pounds. The largest bobcat on record in New Hampshire was a male weighing 51 pounds, taken in Pittsburgh in 1927.
Unlike the lynx, which moved into northern territories when New Hampshire land was cleared for farms and development, bobcats are highly adaptable and can live close to humans. Like many predators, they are most active at dawn and dusk. They breed from February through March, and litters average two to four kittens.
They communicate by four primary sounds: growls, screams, hisses and purrs.
“We definitely advise you, if you see one purring, don’t pick it up,” Whitfield said, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
Learning through animal diet
By performing necropsies on bobcat specimens, state researchers have learned how the New Hampshire bobcat’s diet has changed over time.
“Prey reflects the pattern of the land use,” Whitfield said.
The state conducted necropsies during three different periods in the twentieth century — 1951-1954, 1961-1965, and 1979-1981 — and discovered dramatic changes in the bobcat diet.
In 1951-1954, the cottontail rabbit was over 40% of the bobcat diet. In 1961-1965, the percentage of deer in the bobcat’s diet jumped, from 20% in the early 1950’s, to 35-40%.
“That doesn’t mean they were killing a lot more deer,” Whitfield said. “They might have been taking a lot more advantage of winter kill.”
The 1979-1981 study showed the biggest change, Whitfield said. The deer herds were in decline during that period and the land development and highway building had wiped out the cottontail rabbit population. By 1979 the bobcat diet had become largely rodents and other small mammals.
The open-season controversy
In 2016 Fish and Game tried to open a season to trap bobcats in order to update their knowledge of the bobcats’ diet, but public outcry against the proposal forced Fish and Game to yield.
According to Whitfield, the department wanted to permit trappers to take 50 bobcats and give them to the state to determine their health, feeding habits and other information. From a 2009-2010 study estimating at least 1,400 bobcats in New Hampshire, biologists believed the state could safely take up to 75 cats without affecting the population.
“I think the proposal was killed because people didn’t understand the basis behind what was going on,” Whitfield said. “Public outcry changes things sometimes, and not always for the right reason.”
An experienced trapper in attendance responded to concerns about animal suffering by saying that trappers check their traps frequently. It is also illegal to neglect animals caught in traps.
“I don’t know any trappers who don’t check their traps,” he said. “The last thing any trapper wants is to see animals suffer.”
Whitfield added that many bobcats experience greater suffering through natural causes. For example, though bobcats in captivity can live up to 10 years, in the wild they rarely live beyond five or six. Whitfield said the reason is because of tooth decay. As the bobcat loses his or her teeth, the cat has to expend more energy to catch prey and eat.
“If you die because you don’t have teeth in your mouth, that’s a long agonizing death,” he said.
Whitfield said that Fish and Game has no immediate plan to renew the trapping season proposal, with public feeling around the issue still strong. However, he believes that ultimately New Hampshire should have a bobcat season. Both Vermont and Maine have a bobcat season, which allows their states to better manage and study their populations.