Two men hovered over a large, spotted bobcat in west-central Illinois last January. Blindfolded and lying on a blue sleeping bag, the 30-pound male was the first of 17 bobcats that biologists Christopher Jacques and Tim Swearingen would catch over the course of the year. They had just 40 minutes to collect the data they needed—body measurements and tissue samples—before the sedative wore off. When the cat, named M1, woke, he woozily walked back into the woods sporting some new jewelry: ear tags and a radio collar.
M1’s new necklace was supposed to allow the Western Illinois University researchers to track his whereabouts, but within a week the cat had vanished. “We thought the collar malfunctioned,” Jacques says. A few weeks later, a landowner reported seeing a collared bobcat on his property. M1 had simply rambled out of range, a surprise since the biologists didn’t think the shy cat would wander that far into inhospitable agricultural lands.
Across the country bobcats are making a comeback, thanks to state and international protections. In 1977 the International Union for Conservation of Nature included the cat on its Red List of Threatened Species, which required federal and state agencies to keep track of how many bobcats were killed in the country each year. Since the early 1980s, the U.S. bobcat population grew from an estimated 1 million to 3.5 million. According to data published in 2009, around 5,000 bobcats live in Illinois. Even so, chances are you’ll never see one. Little is known about these animals that look like housecats on steroids (they’re roughly twice the size). Bobcats are nocturnal, shy, and solitary—all traits that make them hard to study and their populations hard to manage.
More than half of the Illinois bobcats prowl around Shawnee National Forest in the south, but bow hunters, who often record the animals they see from their stands, have spotted bobcats all over the state. Researchers and wildlife managers have been using this information for population estimates and say the cat’s numbers are healthy and growing—increasing by 4 percent to 9 percent a year.
This prompted state legislators to pass a law last year that allows the hunting of up to 500 bobcats in certain areas between November and the end of January. It’s the first bobcat hunting season Illinois has had in 40 years, and it’s not without controversy, but Jacques says the cull is unlikely to do much harm to the animal’s population.
This was not the case in the Corn Belt in the early 1900s, when trapping and habitat destruction, as agricultural fields replaced prairie land, nearly wiped out these tufted-eared cats. Sympathy for the animal remains strong here, and many midwesterners have spoken out in the cat’s defense, some even applying for hunting licenses they don’t intend to use.
Due in part to the bobcat’s swift recovery, conservation groups in the Midwest, including NRDC, have focused on boosting predator populations that aren’t doing as well. For instance, NRDC worked with state legislators in 2014 to pass a law that protects cougars, black bears, and wolves as they attempt to reestablish their populations in Illinois.
Bobcats tend to adapt more easily to new circumstances than other predators, says William R. Clark, emeritus professor at Iowa State University, who worked on midwestern bobcat populations for more than a decade. In forests, prairies, deserts, and mountains across the country, bobcats stealthily dine on a buffet of bunnies, mice, and squirrels. The cats aren’t picky about what they eat or where they live, but closely monitoring these elusive animals is critical to making sure they continue to thrive.
Wisconsin allows bobcat hunting in some of its counties, and Indiana is considering a bobcat hunt as well. “I’m not worried that bobcats are going to disappear,” Clark says. “By the same token, I’m not of the mind to say, ‘Let’s just pound the crap out of the population.’” For now, he and other biologists like Jacques and Swearingen are more interested in what the hunts might teach us about these animals.
In the early 2000s, before Iowa legalized bobcat hunting, Clark and his team began working with hunters who would sometimes unintentionally catch the cats in live traps, which capture but don’t kill the animals. The hunters would call up the biologists, who would tag and collar the bobcats before letting them go. Of the 158 bobcats collared back then, 90 percent of them were a result of this outreach with hunters.
When Iowa legalized bobcat hunting in 2007, the state required trappers to give the researchers the bobcat carcasses (usually after taking their pelts). “It was a gold mine in terms of data,” says Clark, who would use the tissue for genetic testing. “We have more DNA in the freezer than anybody in the world on bobcats right now.”
Clark’s team published a study in 2012 showing genetic distinctions among bobcats throughout the United States. The various populations, Clark says, will eventually meet—somewhere in the Midwest—and those differences will disappear.
Working with hunters can be hugely valuable, Clark says, and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses brings needed funding to state wildlife agencies. In this indirect way, hunting “preserves chickadee habitat as much as it preserves bobcat habitat, the sedge wren as much as the muskrat.”
Since the Illinois hunt began last month, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has also been monitoring where hunters make their kills. For their part, Jacques and Swearingen have been hitting the pavement to knock on doors, meet with trappers, and hand out business cards. If someone catches or spots a bobcat, the biologists want that person to know whom to call. The effort seems to be paying off. They have already gathered more data than they collected in all 2015.
Come January, Jacques and Swearingen will set their own traps, live ones. Two weeks ago they called the landowner on whose land they caught M1, asking if they could come back. He told them to come on down; he’s seen two new cats roaming around.