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  • by Ann Bennett

The Elusive Cat of the North Country

Few animals are as elusive and mysterious as New Hampshire's bobcat. "No matter how long you spend in the woods, they're the kind of animal you never see," said Henry Mock, who, as a warden for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, spent a decade patrolling the forests surrounding the Mt. Washington Valley.

Mock, who now holds an administrative position with the Department in Concord, feels certain there is a stable bobcat population in Northern New Hampshire, and often has seen tracks and other signs, though he was never fortunate enough to view one of the animals.

Not many people have. The bobcat, also called a wildcat, is primarily a nocturnal animal, and anonymity is basic to its nature. Lynx rufus, a cousin to both the domestic house cat and the larger Canadian lynx, prowls at night in search of food, and shuns settled areas. Occasionally one may move about during the daylight, but more often, the small cats, averaging 15 to 20 pounds, settle into a thicket or rocky crevice until nightfall.

The bobcat is unique in its ability to be equally at home in a wide variety of habitats, from heavily forested mountainsides to the arid expanses of the Southwest. While there is only one species, 11 subspecies exist in North America, though all are very similar in their habits and temperament. The outstanding difference tends to be in color variation, determined by varying habitat in different parts of the country.

Bobcats have a distinctive appearance. In Northern New England, the animal's fur tends to be a faded red or tawny brown, more faded in winter than summer, and has black spots. The tail is very short, marked with prominent black bars. The ears are another of the bobcat's outstanding features. Light colored on the front and inside, the backs are edged with black to form a pronounced triangle.

A bobcat is the ultimate predator, and feeds on a variety of small rodents, rabbits and birds. Since the abundance and type of prey varies with the season and from year to year, so does the cat's diet. Mice and chipmunks are easy targets in summer and spring, while during the months of cold and snow, bobcats shift to larger animals and birds. They are more than capable of taking down a deer, especially when yarded up in winter and hampered by deep snows.

In New Hampshire, the bobcat has acquired a poor reputation for its habit of subsisting on animals considered to be prime game by human hunters. The cat was also prone to helping itself to livestock, back when farming was a way of life in the state, though such incidents are virtually unheard of today. The result was a bounty on the animal, and a provision of this sort as early as 1809 passed the N.H. legislature. Up until a decade ago, a bounty was still offered for bobcats, and there was an open hunting season.

Whether the bounty system or simple evolution is to blame, there are relatively few bobcats in the state. Lewis Fernald, a native of Jackson who has hunted, trapped and fished there since his boyhood, is an individual who was lucky enough to see bobcats on several occasions in the wild. "I haven't seen one or much sign in 10 years, though," he noted.

Eric Orff, wildlife biologist for the Fish and Game Department, feels the bobcat's decline is due, in part, to other factors. "Several animals compete directly with the bobcat for food," he explained. "The fisher cat, in particular, lives on small game, and it is well known that their population peaked in the early seventies." The logical implication, he elaborated, is fewer bobcats. Another species making a recent surge, he said, was the Eastern coyote, and Orff feels it, too, will affect the bobcat.

Today, the bobcat is a protected species in New Hampshire, although Orff noted that every year there are a few sportsmen who suggest reopening the season on the animal. "We hold hearings twice a year to determine the season on all game animals in New Hampshire, and there are still some who would like to be able to hunt bobcats," he said. "To date, there hasn't been enough support to bring it to a vote, though."

Orff admitted that the Fish and Game Department has very little idea how many bobcats still exist within the boundaries of the state. "It's very difficult to tell," he remarked. "You never see the animal, so it's hard to count them." The Department did initiate a census program last winter, he noted, though it is in the preliminary stages. A census involves visiting various parts of the state during the winter, and determining the frequency of tracks, which was done once in 1979. "It will be impossible to predict a population trend for several years to come," Orff said, adding that while the bobcat seems to be virtually extinct in some areas of the state, there are pockets of concentration, particularly in northern sections.

It seems unlikely that one will happen across a bobcat in the years to come, but it is not uncommon to find its tracks during winter, assuming you know what to look for. A bobcat's feet are large in comparison to a house cat, and no claw marks appear in the track. Footprints are approximately 2 inches long by 1 3/4 inches wide, and will show four toe marks and a separate heel-pad. The telling sign is the "lone-foot effect," because the hind feet are set down exaclty in thr trails made by the forefeet. While this is sort of a vicarious way to enjoy one of New Hampshire's real natives, it's still nice to know that they're around.

Note: While the N.H. legislature initially voted to approve a bobcat season early in 2016, they called it off a few months later in April of that year.

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