By Matthew L. Miller
A few decades ago, a bobcat sighting in most parts of North America was a rarity. Today, however, they are the most widespread wild cat in North America, found in 47 U.S. states and parts of Canada and Mexico. Anyone who lives in the United States today — including Virginia — has a good chance of having a bobcat roaming nearby.
Bobcats are, in fact, a conservation success story. As recently as 1970 they were treated by many wildlife agencies as a harmful predator species, to be killed on sight. In fact, bobcats lacked any legal protection in 40 U.S. states; they could be shot and trapped at any time of year without limit.
With populations declining across their range, this slowly began to change, with most states either protecting bobcats or establishing strict hunting seasons and limits.
This is one of those instances where conservation proved uncomplicated: protect bobcats from unregulated hunting, and their populations will rebound. A 2010 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that bobcat populations had tripled since the 1980s.
According to Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, bobcats are all over the state. In fact, says the DGIF, they are the only wild feline still found in Virginia.
The greatest concentrations in Virginia of this secretive and fascinating mammal are in the Barbours Creek section of Craig, Poor Valley in Bland and Tazewell, parts of Augusta, the Alleghany Mountains through Highland, Bath and Alleghany, the Massanutten Range, and parts of Wise, Lee and Scott counties. Bobcats are present, however, throughout the state. They are generally found in wooded areas near farms and human habitation, which sounds a lot like southwestern Virginia. They show little avoidance of any habitat type except for highly developed areas with dense human populations.
So could they be in your backyard? And, if so, is that a problem? How are we to best live alongside these predatory cats?
The VDGIF does not require a kill permit for a bobcat. A landowner may kill a bobcat on his own land during closed season. The department notes, however, that local ordinances are usually more restrictive than state laws.
Problems caused by bobcats are very infrequent, should be addressed on an individual basis and can often be remedied by preventative methods such as fencing. They are not a significant vector of disease and rarely contract the mid-Atlantic strain of rabies.
Bobcats are most active just after dusk and before dawn. They are secretive, solitary and seldom observed, tending to hunt and travel in areas of thick cover. Bobcats rely on their keen eyesight and hearing for locating enemies and prey, which is usually medium-sized animals such as rabbits and hares. Compared to many wildlife species, bobcats rarely cause conflicts with human activities.
Are bobcats a threat to your pets?
Whenever predators show up, people worry about these larger animals eating their pets. In the case of bobcats, this is not a realistic fear. Researchers looking at bobcat diets in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California failed to find any examples where bobcats ate domestic pets, despite the close proximity of the wild cats to many pet-owning households. Bobcats eat a lot of rodents; they do not want to tangle with something that can claw back.
As is so often the case, many people blame predators when their pet goes missing, even though their cat or dog was more likely hit by a car. There’s also a really simple way to avoid any potential predation: keep your pet indoors or under your supervision.
Bobcat attacks on humans are exceedingly rare, and almost always a result of the animal being rabid.
On the flip side, our backyards do pose a significant danger to bobcats. Bobcats in the Santa Monica Mountains experienced a population crash from 2001 to 2006 resulting from a form of mange. They contracted the mange due to suppressed immune systems, which was caused by ingesting rats and mice killed by poisons.
These rodent poisons can also impact birds of prey and other wildlife, so homeowners should find other forms of pest control than rat poison.
Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog.