Researchers out of Durham are close to completing a study on bobcat populations in the Granite State. Though no one is sure how many bobcats are in New Hampshire, increased sightings and captures over the past decade have led researchers to believe bobcats are rebounding.
Dr. Marian Litvaitis and her husband John, both professors at UNH, have spearheaded the investigation as part of a project collaboration . Now in the project's fourth year, Litvaitis and her team are now focused primarily on bobcat genetics. I talked with Dr. Litvaitis about the rebounding cat on Thursday:
Why should we care about bobcats?
Well, they are actually very charismatic, they're one of our larger predators and people are fascinated by them.
What progress have you made in this study?
The study was initiated through my husband John. He and his graduate students were interested in finding where the best habitat for bobcats is in the state. So, they went out and got information from radio-collared bobcats. One of the things they found is that bobcats obviously prefer forests, specifically shrub land. They do not like mature, closed canopy forests. They also really like wetlands but do not like snow and high elevation. When you have this information you then can create a map of the entire state and try to identify areas that are very suitable for bobcats. We call these habitat suitability maps.
Where do you see these hotspots for bobcats?
We were a little bit surprised by our results. We found that bobcats tend to hang out in the southwest and the southeastern parts of the state.
In those areas there are a lot more people and many more roadways. How do interstates affect the population and dispersion of bobcats?
Roadways are a very bad thing for bobcats. I get most of my samples from roadkill. Over the last three or four years, we have had over 130 road kills. That affects their genetics a little because if you cannot move across a road to breed, then you will not leave offspring in an adjacent area. The population gets what we call genetically subdivided. Very early data shows us that I-93 is a very big barrier for bobcats. We also see natural barriers like the White Mountains dividing bobcat populations.
What do you hope happens with the genetic data you are compiling? Do you hope that it can somehow benefit the bobcat population in the state?
One of the things we ultimately want to do is find specific areas where bobcats try to cross the roads. We call these areas hotspots or pinch points. Maybe, eventually, there might be some money available to create some overpasses or underpasses. That would benefit all kinds of wildlife, not just bobcats. The other thing we are interested in doing is to make a comparison between current bobcat genetics and bobcat genetics in the 1950s. We can do this because we have a large collection of almost 300 bobcats skulls that were collected during that time. We can see if there was a change, maybe a reduction over time, because bobcat numbers dropped significantly in the 1960s. By 1989 the trapping and hunting season was closed because populations declined so dramatically.
How does our bobcat population compare to other states?
There are more and more sightings that people are reporting. But, you have to realize that there are many states that still have the hunting and trapping season. Actually, in New England, New Hampshire is unique because Maine, Vermont, parts of Massachusetts and southern Quebec still have the hunting and trapping season.
Do you worry that, considering the rebounding population, people will call for the bobcat hunting and trapping season once again?
I think people will. There's a whole group of bobcats that are surprising us dramatically. These bobcats are hanging out in developments waiting at bird feeders, not for the bird, but for squirrels. That to us is surprising because bobcats are supposed to be relatively shy and elusive. It's getting to the point now where we actually see some bobcats entering more and more urban areas. It could possibly be driven by the fact they are going after easy prey items that are associated with human development.