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California’s Bobcats: Where Do They Stand Now?

By Jacob Shea, Felidae Volunteer
Photos courtesy of Trish Carney

On August 5, 2015, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to ban commercial and sport bobcat trapping across the state. The regulation, which passed with a 3-2 majority, places California among the ranks of ten other US states that have banned bobcat trapping, including Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana and Ohio.

The law came in response to an overwhelming grass-roots effort by concerned citizens and environmental groups. Two years ago, Joshua Tree, California, residents sighted fewer bobcats than usual, and a trap was discovered on private property. The outraged citizens notified police and a local news outlet.

Trappers and hunting groups have protested that the legislation is excessive and unwarranted. The California Trapper’s Association argues that scientific evidence showing a threat to bobcat populations is lacking, and that a total ban is unfounded.

Conversely, this logic also supports the environmental advocacy groups’ arguments: if there is no certainty about bobcat populations in the wild, it is not known if trapping could pose a danger to the ecosystem. Furthermore, wildlife groups argue, that the cost for conducting a census should lie with the trappers rather than with the taxpayers.

Regardless of which side one takes, one thing is certain: the scientific evidence is outdated. The last national bobcat census estimated the species’ population as 725,000 to 1,000,000, but it was conducted about thirty years ago. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists bobcats in its Least Concern classification.

Before the ban, a licensed trapper could take any number of bobcats. The Bobcat Protection Act of 2013 was created to ban commercial trapping entirely, but the bill was cut to a slimmer version before passage, restricting trapping only in areas around national parks, state parks and wildlife refuges. California had 267 licensed trappers in 2014—a 24% increase from the year before—with roughly 100 trappers reporting catches.

However, as state wildlife authorities told the LA Times, an estimated 1,813 bobcats were trapped during the period 2011 through 2012—a 51% increase from the previous trapping season.

Even without trapping, California’s bobcats face no shortage of threats. Habitat depletion accounts for the most significant population declines. Urban development drives this, and many other, species into ever narrower ranges and splits populations, hindering essential gene flow between groups. One study, conducted by UCLA and the National Park Service, links certain rodenticide toxins to bobcat illnesses such as mange. To read study, click here.

Vehicle strikes, dog attacks and retaliatory killing by farmers for small livestock attacks, are other dangers to these wild cats.

The recent drought that has plagued California also puts strain on the species. The dwindling numbers of forage plants, which provide small rodents with seeds and nuts, as well as cover, affects predators all the way up the food chain. Wild animals are often pushed farther and farther into human territory to find water.

One serious threat, however, doesn’t come from California at all: there is an increased demand for bobcat fur in the international markets of Russia and China. While bobcat fur was once thought to be of inferior quality for luxury clothing, increased protection for other species has driven up its value. Prices vary, but a single pelt can fetch between $400 and $1,200. Some conservationists worry that with these climbing prices, illegal poaching could be on the rise.

Felidae Conservation Fund conducts studies on California bobcat populations to ensure the species’ health, including the effects of human development and habitat fragmentation, the genetic status and distribution of the species, mortality from disease and human causes and other conservation factors.