The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
Those are not immigrants slipping across the border under cover of darkness — not illegal, undocumented, or unregistered aliens. They belong here, and in fact, they were here first.
Bobcats were present in Ohio long before the first ax felled a tree or the first row of corn was planted. And after being eliminated from the state before the start of the Civil War due to the extensive clearing of the land and the accompanying loss of habitat, they were considered nonexistent in Ohio until about 50 years ago when rare, random sightings began occurring.
That trend has continued, with bobcats pushing into Ohio from Michigan to the north, Indiana to the west, Kentucky to the south, and West Virginia and Pennsylvania to the south and east.
“Their numbers are increasing every year,” said Suzie Prange, a biologist with the Division of Wildlife’s office in Athens, which sits in the bobcat-favorable forested region of southeastern Ohio.
“We have a population that is growing steadily. We expect that to level off eventually, once they have occupied all the potential habitat, but for now we’re seeing a steady increase.”
Prange said Ohio’s bobcats have set up shop in areas where they have found “ideal” habitat — forested sections where clear-cuts have allowed belts of very dense new growth to occur. The bobcats find the thick cover teeming with the small mammals that make up a large portion of their diet, and is equally ideal for the stealth and ambush style of hunting they employ.
Bobcats are found throughout the U.S., and are the most common of the wild cats, with a nationwide population estimated at about one million animals, according to National Geographic.
Noble County, sparsely populated with just 14,000 residents, has experienced the highest number of bobcat sightings. Of the 169 confirmed bobcat sightings in Ohio in 2012, 14 percent occurred in Noble County and 62 percent (105 sightings) were reported within a one county radius of Noble, which sits north of Marietta and just one county away from the West Virginia line.
“There are a number of old strip mines in that area, so they seem to be very fond of Noble County,” said Prange. “It’s remote, and these are very shy animals, so it’s not surprising there are more bobcat sightings there. They stay clear of suburban or populated areas.”
A bobcat killed on the road was picked up recently along Central Avenue, outside Secor Metropark, a couple miles west of I-475/U.S. 23. The adult female is awaiting a necropsy that will hopefully reveal more about its diet and origin , but Prange said there was no evidence to suggest it was at one point a pet that had been released.
This confirmed northwest Ohio bobcat is the second in recent years, although there have been numerous reported sightings that the state still classifies as unverified. Late in 2011 in Williams County, a male bobcat was caught in a snare local trappers had set for raccoons.
Prange said that due to their reclusive behavior, bobcats can be present in an area for some time without human detection.
“They are very, very shy, so in most cases they will be long gone before you get there, if they hear you coming,” she said. “Around Ohio, they are not known to go after pets or livestock, so it is pretty unusual to see one. They also seem to stay clear of areas where there are feral cats.”
Bobcats were officially listed as endangered in Ohio until about a year ago, when they were reclassified as threatened, so there is no hunting or trapping season.
In Michigan, where bobcats have had a much stronger presence historically, select counties have hunting and trapping seasons. These are located in the Upper Peninsula and the northern third of the Lower Peninsula. There is no bobcat hunting or trapping permitted anywhere south of Saginaw Bay.
Bobcats are about twice the size of the average house cat, so a 30 pound male is considered a very large bobcat. They have a dense fur that is short and can be anywhere from a light gray in color to various shades of brown, including yellowish and reddish brown. The bobcat has a short, black tail, and the tips of its ears are also black.
This is a normally solitary hunter with strong territorial instincts. Bobcats pair up and breed in December through spring, with the female often selecting cavities in rocky areas as a den. The young are born fully furred, but totally dependent on the mother. The kittens are usually weaned at about two months of age and then taught to hunt so that they can survive on their own before the onset of winter.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.