This past autumn, Ohio found itself at the epicentre of a fight over a long-lost predator that’s quietly making inroads across the US Midwest: the bobcat.
A controversial bobcat hunting proposal came to a head in May when sportsmen organisations squared off with conservationists over whether the population had rebounded enough to support a limited trapping season of up to 60 animals, something the Ohio Department of Natural Resources first proposed back in February. At present, 40 states allow the killing of bobcats.
“There’s enough there,” Keith Daniels from the Ohio State Trappers Association told the Columbus Dispatch in March. “We don’t want to see a resource go to waste just because someone thinks we shouldn’t.”
But the state’s proposal, which came less than four years after Ohio removed bobcats from the endangered list, was met with vocal opposition from conservationists and activists. Some opponents pointed out that Ohio’s bobcats have only recently showed signs of recovery, while their overall numbers throughout the state remain unknown. Others worried that even a limited hunting season could get out of hand quickly.
“I have no doubt that the statewide quota would be exceeded on the first or second day,” Suzanne Prange, director of the Appalachian Wildlife Research Institute and opponent of the plan, told Gizmodo, noting that the state was only planning to charge trappers $US5 ($7) per hunting permit. “My biggest fear was how much it might be exceeded by the time the state could halt the season. They could seriously hurt the population before the season could be stopped.”
It’s a microcosm of a fight that’s raging out across the Midwest, where the bobcat has made an extraordinary comeback in recent decades, largely to the credit of state wildlife management agencies and reforestation efforts.
But as is the case with other recovering carnivores like Yellowstone’s grizzly bears, there remains vehement disagreement over whether these animals are ready for humans to start hunting them again.
An elusive 20 to 30 pound creature known for its distinctive bobbed tail, bobcats historically ranged across a vast swath of North America from northern Mexico to southern Canada. But hunting and trapping, along with the conversion of forests to farmland and the subsequent decline of their prey, took a serious toll on these predators.
By the early 1900s, bobcats were virtually extirpated from the Midwest and parts of the eastern United States.
“In many states, bobcats were driven to the brink of extinction — or even completely extirpated in some areas — due to loss of habitat, over-hunting, and trapping,” Samantha Hagio, director of wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States, told Gizmodo.
But around the same time that bobcats were vanishing, policy shifts were setting the stage for their eventual rebound.
David McNitt, a grad student at Virginia Tech who focuses his research on bobcats, observed that with the creation of the National Forest System in the early 1900s, the bobcat was provided “large swaths of habitat to act as population refuges.” With the introduction of state agency regulations surrounding hunting and trapping in the decades that followed, the big cat began to re-colonise much of its native distribution.
By the late 1990s, bobcats were increasing “throughout the majority of their range,” according to a detailed national survey released in 2010. Even in the Midwest, where, as McNitt observed, public lands are scarce and landscapes are “dominated with monoculture farms” bobcat numbers have appeared to improve just enough to have their conservation status downgraded.
Bobcats were removed from Illinois’ list of threatened species in 1999, and they were taken off Indiana’s endangered list in 2005. By 2007, Iowa’s once-endangered bobcats had recovered enough to support limited hunting seasons. In Ohio, bobcats were downgraded from endangered to threatened in 2012 and removed from the endangered species list altogether in 2014.
But despite the general upward trend of bobcat numbers (as of 2010, the total US population sat somewhere between 2.3 and 3.6 million), some experts have cautioned that populations may still remain at risk.
“Local threats may decrease population success through time,” Imogene Cancellare, a wildlife biologist at the University of Delaware, told Gizmodo. “Not all populations in the United States are stable, or growing.”
During the impassioned debate in Ohio over whether to allow trapping, proponents argued that a 60-bobcat cap wouldn’t put the animal’s numbers at risk. The state Department of Natural Resources agreed.
“We’re confident the population is secure. We’re not trying to reduce the number of bobcats,” Mike Reynolds, Wildlife Research Administrator for the ODNR Division of Wildlife told the Dispatch in March.
But ultimately, in May, the Ohio Wildlife Council felt that there wasn’t enough information to make a determination either way. By a 6 to 1 vote, the council decided to delay the proposed trapping season until there was more definitive data showing a “thriving population”.
One member of the council suggested waiting until after a four-year population study — currently underway by Viorel Popescu and wildlife researchers at Ohio University — was completed.
The debate over whether to allow bobcat harvesting is not confined to Ohio. In May, a proposal to open bobcat hunting and trapping in Indiana was shot down by the Indiana Natural Resources Commission after more than 1300 citizens reportedly spoke out in opposition during the public comment period.
Similar debates are playing out with other wild carnivores — albeit significantly more threatened ones — such as the grizzly bear. In May, Wyoming’s Game and Fish Commission voted unanimously to allow the hunting of up to 22 grizzly bears this spring. The decision was met with fierce blowback from conservationists, so much so that a district court could reverse it this week.
More and more states are allowing grey wolves to be hunted as populations recover, but those hunts remain equally controversial.
For bobcats, recent battles over opening hunting seasons have mostly taken place on the state level. But with the Trump administration weakening wildlife protections for threatened and endangered species and increasing certain privileges for hunters (not to mention Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proudly tweeting a photo of the stuffed bobcat in his office), it’s possible that the federal government could soon join the fray.
The future for the elusive cats, while brighter than it once was, remains tinged with uncertainty.
James Crugnale is an environmental journalist from Brooklyn.