Nothing to fear about bobcats, specialists say

Photo courtesy of Theresa Sheehan

Why did the bobcat cross the road? To get to the otter's side! This photograph of a bobcat was taken by Theresa Sheehan in Fairfield.
Photo courtesy of Theresa Sheehan Why did the bobcat cross the road? To get to the otter's side! This photograph of a bobcat was taken by Theresa Sheehan in Fairfield.

FAIRFIELD — A number of Fairfield residents have posted photos in the last few weeks of bobcats they’ve seen in town and in their backyard.

For those who are curious about the animals, there is no need to fear them. Dan Henderson, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer for Jefferson and Henry counties, said bobcats are not dangerous at all. He said bobcats are rarely seen because as soon as they see or hear humans coming, they run away.

Iowa DNR wildlife biologist Vince Evelsizer, who specializes in furbearers and wetlands, said he hasn’t heard of any problems of bobcats attacking pets, either.

“There have been very few if any problems with bobcats and cats or small dogs,” he said. “There’s always a chance that the bobcat could have an encounter with a house cat at night, but we don’t know of any.”

Henderson and Evelsizer said bobcats like to eat smaller prey. Henderson estimated that 80 percent of their diet is rabbits. The other 20 percent consists of squirrels, mice and birds.

“Bobcats generally keep to themselves, and they’re not known to carry nasty diseases,” Evelsizer said. “They’re not something to be afraid of or worry about too much.”

History in Iowa

The bobcat is native to Iowa and once roamed the state in great number before the arrival of Europeans. Evelsizer said that, as Europeans settled the area in the 1800s, the bobcat numbers plummeted due to unrestricted hunting and habitat loss. By 1976, their numbers had become so small that they were listed as protected, meaning they were illegal to hunt.

In the 1990s, bobcats in neighboring and nearby states such as Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri made the trek into Iowa. Their population grew and grew thanks to their protected status. Eventually, there were enough of them that the DNR allowed a bobcat harvest for the first time in decades, albeit on a limited basis of one bobcat per hunter, in 2007.

Evelsizer estimates there are now between 5,000-8,000 bobcats in Iowa. They remain more abundant in the southern half of the state, and their numbers are growing steadily in southeast Iowa especially in the last two or three years. Why? Apart from the restrictions on hunting them, the bobcats have been able to find nice habitat in this part of the state, and plenty of their favorite prey.

Evelsizer said bobcats are considered “habitat specialists” because they need a special habitat. In contrast, coyotes are “habitat generalists,” because they can inhabit many different types of areas. The bobcat’s preferred habitat is either timber or prairie.

Bobcats are doing so well that the DNR is increasing the tag limit from one per person to three per person, but only in the bottom three tiers of counties where bobcats are numerous. Bobcats remain scarce in the northern half of the state.

Confusion with mountain lion

Henderson and Evelsizer said bobcats are commonly mistaken for mountain lions.

“If someone says they saw a black bear in northeast Iowa, it probably was a black bear. But if someone says they saw a mountain lion, it’s almost always a dog or a bobcat,” Evelsizer said.

The most significant difference between the two is their size: The largest bobcats grow to 2-4 feet in length and 30-35 pounds, whereas a mountain lion can grow up to 6 feet in length and 140-160 pounds. Mountain lions also have a long tail, whereas bobcats have a chubby tail. Bobcats usually have a gray to brown coat, while mountain lions have a coat that is more orange-brown or yellow-brown.

Henderson said that he’s heard several reports of mountain lions in southeast Iowa, but in his 10 years on the job, he’s never seen a photograph of one from the area.

There is no recorded population of mountain lions in Iowa, meaning a male, female, and offspring. The tiny handful that do exist are probably males from another state that are just passing through. Henderson said the average male will travel 75-100 miles a day looking for a female.

Evelsizer said the DNR knows of perhaps one or two mountain lions in the entire state of Iowa, and those are usually coming from western states where they’re more common such as South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming.

“We get reports of mountain lions every week, and we look into them when we can,” Evelsizer said. “Even though a high percentage of them are mistaken identity, we want people to know we appreciate the reports.”

Bobcat harvest

Since legal harvesting of bobcats was reintroduced in 2007, the DNR has kept close tabs on the number of bobcats legally killed. During the fall of 2018 and through that winter, 687 bobcats were harvested in the state. The number harvested in the following counties were: Washington with 13; Jefferson with 17; and Henry with one. The county with the most bobcats harvested was Van Buren with 43.

Evelsizer said the public should be careful about reading too much into the harvest numbers. For instance, the apparent paucity of bobcats in Henry County might just mean there is little interest in hunting/trapping the animals there, and not necessarily that there are few bobcats in the county. He said about half the people who harvest bobcats sell the animal’s fur on the market, while the other half keep the fur for themselves or have the animal taxidermied.

Wildlife management

The Union asked Evelsizer if the DNR plans to increase the bobcat population to a specific number. He said the agency doesn’t have a number in mind, though it does want to see the bobcat expand into the northern counties where they are lacking.

“They’re a native animal that deserves to be out there,” he said. “Bobcats are territorial, and they get to where they stack up on top of each other, and that’s when they have to find new territory. There is only so much prey to go around.”