While checking his coyote traps in the town of Pine River on Nov. 11, Merrill trapper Steve Maluegge discovered he’d caught a bobcat.
Steve has been trapping as a hobby for 15-20 years. He had legally harvested his first bobcat last year, but this year he didn’t have a permit for one, so this cat would have to be released.
Not looking forward to that ordeal, Steve knew what to do. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had put out a call to trappers at the beginning of the season notifying them of a new bobcat monitoring project. The DNR asked trappers to contact them if they accidentally caught a bobcat. Steve called the number he’d been given and a team headed down from Rhinelander.
“They got down here from Rhinelander in about 45 minutes,” Steve said.
DNR wildlife biologists Nick Forman and Teresa Pearson sedated the animal, noted its weight, size and apparent age, and placed the collar on it. Steve was with his brother, Tom; son, Luke; and grandchildren, Bray and Austin Schmidt, that day. They were allowed to observe and participate in the process.
“I was fortunate to have my grandchildren with me that day,” Steve said. “The DNR researchers were just awesome to work with. It was really an educational afternoon.”
Steve’s leg hold trap hadn’t injured the 38-pound male. When the cat woke up, it was on its way and is now part of a bobcat research project intended to give the DNR a better understanding of the populations and habitat preferences of Wisconsin bobcat.
Steve said he’ll get a report from the DNR every three months to let him know the whereabouts of “his” bobcat.
Last year, the DNR conducted a pilot study in Vilas and Oneida counties. That study was expanded in 2015 to include 12 counties in the northeastern part of the state. For the 2015-2016 trapping season, research efforts include Ashland, Florence, Forest, Iron, Langlade, Lincoln, Oneida, Price, Rusk, Sawyer, Taylor and Vilas counties.
The DNR has so far collared and released 31 bobcats, 29 of which are still being monitored. Seven of those bobcats are in Lincoln County.
The purpose of the monitoring program is twofold, noted Nathan Roberts, large carnivore and furbearer research scientist for the DNR.
“We want to get an idea of what the harvest rates are,” he said, “and we use this information to get a better estimate of the population status.”
The DNR’s best estimate of the bobcat population in the northern zone is 2,500 animals. The harvest quota is directly related to the population estimate. Harvest data from Wisconsin’s 2014–15 bobcat seasons has shown that hunters and trappers harvested 274 bobcats. This marks the fourth year of expanded bobcat harvest and includes results from the newly opened southern bobcat harvest zone. In Wisconsin, hunters and trappers harvest about an equal number of bobcats.
Having a better idea of how many bobcats are out there will help the DNR set sustainable harvest quotas, Roberts explained.
“We have to be able to defend that the quota is sustainable,” he said, “while also providing opportunties for hunters and trappers to take the animals.”
The research is showing that bobcats tend to not roam very far, unlike wolves which will travel long distances.
“They seem to stay in the area,” Roberts said. “The cats we are monitoring haven’t moved more than two or three miles from where they were collared.”
The GPS collars provide a location once a day. The development of GPS is what has made it possible for the DNR to collar and monitor bobcats. The old radio transmitters worked for deer, wolves and other large animals, but the collars were too big and heavy to put on a bobcat. Advances in GPS technology have only recently allowed for collars small enough for the cats.
“The GPS collars are relatively new for bobcats,” Roberts said.
GPS also offers a much more cost effective means for the DNR to monitor the bobcat population. Radio collars require researchers to drive around long distances with a receiver to get blips on the individual animals. With GPS, location information can be downloaded from a satellite.
“Now we never have to touch them again,” Roberts said, “and we can monitor a much larger area.”
The wary predators are much more difficult to count than, say, deer or even wolves.
“We can’t count them from the air,” Roberts explained, “and they don’t respond well to lures. They don’t walk the length of a road like coyotes or wolves.”
Even people who live in the northwoods may be surprised at the bobcat population estimate. Bobcats are an animal rarely seen in the wild.
“They’re not rare, just cryptic,” Roberts said.
Bobcats can lives 10-12 years, although most are fives years or younger. Adults range in size from 20-40 pounds. Maluegge’s male was the biggest cat to be collared so far.
The research is showing that bobcats are making use of a wide variety of habitats in northern Wisconsin. They can be found in wooded areas, along the edge of crop fields and even in close proximity to humans. One has set up housekeeping in the village of Prentice, preying on birds and squirrels around backyard birdfeeders.
“They can use just about any kind of habitat,” Roberts said.
Bobcats will eat almost anything they can catch, from mice and moles to rabbits and porcupines. While uncommon, bobcats have even been known to take down and eat adult deer.
The DNR could not undertake the bobcat monitoring project without the cooperation of trappers, Roberts said. Just trying to catch enough cats for a meaningful sample would take a lot of staff time.
“Working with trappers made this possible,” Roberts said. “We’re very appreciative of the trappers working with us.”
The DNR works in partnership with the Wisconsin Trapper’s Association to monitor and improve regulated trapping opportunities in the state.
In the event of an incidental bobcat capture in the 12 county area, DNR staff will promptly work with participating trappers to determine if the bobcat is a good candidate for the research project. Interested trappers can contact department researcher staff by calling 715-401-1051.