Why Bobcats Matter

(May 2019). Project Wild Coshocton is entering its 5th year of camera trapping, with the goal of gaining better information on the distribution and population dynamics of bobcats at the north-western end of their range in Ohio.  As I have gone about this project, interacting with curious citizens and students, a common question I’ve encountered is “Why are bobcats important?”  So I wanted to dedicate this post to discussing the ecological value of predators like bobcats, and the benefits we may derive from having them around.

First, to appreciate and hold valuable what appears to be a recovering bobcat population in Coshocton County, we need to come to terms with how much of our wild natural heritage we’ve lost.  I recently read a book entitled Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America by William Stolzenburg1 (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the natural history of cougars, or predators in general).  The book chronicles the travels of a young male cougar, who ventured from the Black Hills of South Dakota eastward in search of his own territory and a mate, traveling over two thousand miles, only to ultimately collide with an SUV on a highway in Connecticut.  But interwoven with this story is a history lesson.  Stolzenburg discusses the history of predator persecution at the hands of European settlers and frontier people who pushed westward, resulting in their near-eradication from the United States.  Horrific scenes of mass slaughter are recounted, including the infamous story of Black Jack Schwartz, who on one day in 1760 organized two hundred men in a “ring hunt” of wildlife in one Pennsylvania county. The men encircled the area, clanging bells and shooting off guns, driving the animals toward the opposing line of men, until each fox, bear, cougar, bobcat, deer and all other manner of wildlife was cornered and killed.  Reportedly that one hunt resulted in the death of a thousand animals, including 41 cougars.  In the wake of our sustained and highly successful effort to eliminate predators like cougars and wolves, the land soon contended with an over-population of herbivores.  Deer and elk herds swelled, resulting in over-browsing of trees.  In the 1940s, Aldo Leopold, a wildlife biologist who previously had been a staunch advocate of strict predator control to improve game populations, concluded that such a strategy was counter-productive to the health of the land.  The absence of predators had cascading effects on the ecosystem, often resulting in the starvation of deer and elk.  By the 1960s, a heightened sense of environmental conscience began to emerge; bounties on mountain lions were ended in many states, with some tightly regulating the sport hunting of the big cat, and others banning their hunting altogether.  By the 1990s, the Black Hills had once again established a self-sustaining cougar population – one that would occasionally produce sufficient young that some would necessarily have to disperse to nearby (or sometimes, far away) areas in an attempt to set up their own territories and find a mate.  Unfortunately, the young (usually male) cougars who ventured eastward always met a sad fate, succumbing to a rifle or fast-moving automobile.

The story of the bobcat, in many ways, parallels that of the cougar.  Although much smaller (an average bobcat weighs just around 20 pounds, whereas an average cougar weighs around 150 pounds), bobcats were subjected to the same persecution that drove the cougar to the brink of extinction in the United States.  Even today, an irrational fear of bobcats persists among some, or the belief that this relatively diminutive cat might have negative impacts on populations of game animals.  But attacks on people by bobcats are practically non-existent, and their effects on game animals are minimal.  As we learned through the elimination of apex predators from Yellowstone National Park, when carnivores are absent, game like deer and elk can exceed the capacity of their environment to produce food for them, resulting in devastating impacts on plant communities and the ultimate starvation of deer and elk.  For bobcats, major prey items include rabbits, squirrels, small rodents like mice, and yes, they occasionally will take deer (especially fawns) or scavenge on already dead deer (like those hit on roads).  But does this mean that deer and rabbit populations will decline to the point of making game scarce for hunters?  No, because bobcats exhibit the same self-limiting population dynamics as shown by cougars in the Western U.S.  When young reach 9-12 months of age, they are forced to disperse to new areas to set up their own territories.  While males overlap their territories with multiple females, they do not share territories with other males, and females also do not tolerate other females in their territories.  Territory size is dependent on prey availability, but for bobcats in eastern Ohio averages about 16 square miles for males and 6 square miles for females2.  And even though bobcats have been experiencing an increase in numbers in Ohio over the last decade, so too have deer populations.  Surveys of bowhunters reveal an increase in the number of deer observed per hour of hunting, compared to longterm averages3.  Traffic collisions with deer have also been increasing, peaking in 2015; to help combat that issue, increased harvesting of deer in some areas was implemented.  According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, deer harvested by hunters increased from 175,745 in the 2014-2015 season to 186,247 in the 2017-2018 season, and that has helped reduce road collisions by about 2,600 cases from 2015 to 20174.

The benefits of having bobcats back in the forests of eastern Ohio are numerous.  In the absence of larger predators, smaller “mesocarnivores” such as raccoons and opossums can overpopulate.  Interestingly, I have encountered multiple landowners in Coshocton County who tell me that the groundhogs on their properties seem to have disappeared once bobcats arrived on the scene.  Bobcats also help control populations of small rodents like mice, which can carry diseases such as Lyme.  And finally there is simply the joy of knowing this wild cat has come back home to Ohio.  Ohio’s forests evolved with bobcats, and bobcats belong here.  There is something special about wandering a forest where I know a bobcat was recently photo-captured by one of our cameras.  These beautiful, graceful, and tenacious wild cats have managed to traverse long distances, crossing highways and rivers to find a patchwork of woodlands in eastern Ohio in which they’ve been able to settle.  It may not be the sprawling, untamed forest of prehistoric Ohio, but they seem capable of making do.  They don’t ask for much, and yet by just being here, what they return is immeasurable.  Forests in Coshocton County are a little wilder now than they were a few decades ago, and that is something to celebrate.

Photo Copyright Project Wild Coshocton.


1  Stolzenburg, W. (2016). Heart of a lion: A lone cat’s walk across America.  New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA.

2  Prange, S. (2012).  Differences in the ecology of bobcats in two genetically distinct populations in Ohio.  Waterloo Wildlife Research Station, Athens, Ohio.  FY2012 Bobcat research report.  11p.

3  Armitage, D. (November 1, 2018).  Ohio deer forecast.  Game and Fish.  Retrieved from https://www.gameandfishmag.com/editorial/2018OhioDeerForecast/327321

4  Deer-vehicle crashes down in Ohio, but steady in Ottawa County. (March 13, 2018).  Port Clinton News Herald.  Retrieved from https://www.portclintonnewsherald.com/story/news/local/2018/03/13/deer-vehicle-crashes-down-ohio-but-steady-ottawa-county/419845002/