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State's first bobcat season in 30 years will not produce expected harvest

Bob Frye
| Thursday, March 1, 2001

Growing up in Clearfield County in the 1950s, Ned Weston never thought of trapping bobcats.

Oh, he trapped just about everything else he could. Starting at age 9 or 10 and using gear left over from his grandfather's days as a trapper, he got a lot of weasels, each of which brought $1 for their pelts. 'Boy, I'd get that dollar and I thought I was a millionaire,' he recalls now.

Bobcats were another story. There was no season or limit on them then - you could go after them year round. No one did, though, because there just weren't many to be had.

Times have certainly changed. Pennsylvania had its first bobcat hunting and trapping season in three decades in the fall and winter of 2000-2001 -Êthe season just ended Feb. 24 -Êand while the number of hunters and trappers who actually harvested a bobcat was not as high as Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists expected, they say bobcats are still expanding in number and range across the Commonwealth.

A total of 290 people were award permits to harvest a bobcat and the PGC had initially said as many as 175 might be successful in getting a cat.

While the final harvest is being determined right now, it looks as if the harvest will be significantly lower than that. As of Feb. 24, 57 cats had been taken.

'Since we hadn't had a season in 30 years, we didn't know how successful these people would be,' says Matt Lovallo, bobcat biologist with the PGC. 'We had expected up to a 60 percent success ratio, but it looks like we should finish somewhere around 20 to 25 percent.'

The fact the harvest was smaller than anticipated should not be seen as evidence the bobcat population is smaller than biologists might have though, Lovallo says. Just the opposite is true, with bobcats in an 'exponential growth situation' even now.

'All indications are the population continues to increase, both in terms of population density and range expansion,' Lovallo says.

As proof, he points to things like the number of bobcats killed on the roads by vehicles. The PGC collected 117 such road kills last year alone, he notes, in places well outside the bobcat's traditional range in the northcentral and northeast regions of the state. One was hit by a vehicle just recently in Lancaster County.

He also points out that Wisconsin, which has long had a season on bobcats, sees only a 12 percent success rate on average.

Weston, a former Wildlife Conservation Officer and land manager for the PGC who retired in 1996 after 35 years, says the area where he harvested his 30-pound bobcat never had cats in the past.

'My brother, who still lives in Clearfield, has been seeing cats in places where we never even saw a fox,' he says. 'It was unheard of then to see a bobcat in those places.'

Bobcats are not as difficult to trap as say a coyote or a fox once you know where they are, says Weston, who has trapped in about 12 states and taken 'probably more than 100' bobcats from the south. He caught his Pennsylvania bobcat within two days of setting his traps.

Finding the bobcats can be tough, though, which could account for the low harvest, he says.

Lovallo adds that some of the people who applied for a bobcat permit may never have had any intention of hunting or trapping. They just collect the permits for their historic value. Others who got a permit may not have had the time to get out much, depending on where they live - hunters and trappers were only allowed to chase the cats in two specific management zones in the northcentral and northeastern parts of the state.

The PGC will survey all 290 permitees to determine things like whether they hunted or trapped and how much effort they put into it. All of the cats harvested have been examined, too, to compare things like the number of males vs. females harvested, the age of the bobcats and more.

What fate awaits the bobcat hunt is yet to be determined. Lovallo would like to keep it as it is for a few years, raising the number of permits and perhaps opening up more of the state to hunting and trapping gradually as more data is collected.

'For now it's important that we keep an unharvested population in place for comparison's sake,' Lovallo says. 'it will be several years at least before we would consider opening other areas. But in the future we may consider having some harvest down in the southwest region, for example. That's one of our other core zones.'

Winter track counts are currently being conducted around the state to assess bobcat numbers and biologists plan to go into the dens of radio-collared female bobcats this spring to tag kittens with tiny transmitters. They'll help biologists track cat dispersal, survival rates and more.

In the meantime, animal rights organizations like the Fund for Animals continue to challenge the bobcat season in court, however; Lovallo was giving depositions just last week. 'We're under a lot of scrutiny,' he admits.

Weston is one person who would like to see the season continue. 'I can't imagine any better day than one spent in the great out of doors.'













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