On the hunt


A proposal to bring bobcat hunting back to NH triggers debate

Even for dedicated outdoors enthusiasts, bobcats are a rare sight. A person could spend their whole lives in the woods and still not see one. John Litvaitis, a University of New Hampshire professor and lead researcher on a four-year project studying bobcats in the state, likened seeing the wild cat to “receiving an extra Christmas present.”

“For people who like the outdoors, there’s a few animals that register on the ‘wow’ list, and bobcats are always going to be on that list,” he says. “We’re all pleased to see wild turkeys or deer, but to see a bobcat, that’s just extra special.”

Litvaitis’ study wrapped up last year. The results were surprising — New Hampshire’s bobcat population was growing again after some tough years in the 1970s and 1980s. The state banned bobcat hunting in 1989; that, combined with reintroduction to and proliferation of wild turkeys in the state in the last four decades, gave the bobcat the time and resources it needed to make a comeback.

That’s why Litvaitis was surprised last fall when the state’s Fish and Game Commission began discussing a proposal to once again establish a bobcat hunting and trapping season.

“I was kind of disappointed in the process, in the context of the fact that we had pretty much just finished … with the study and, rather than spending just a little time introducing to the public the restoration of the population and letting everyone get comfortable with the concept, we went immediately to returning to the harvest,” Litvaitis says. “I thought it was unfortunate in the context of not opening it up to a discussion.”

Fish and Game commissioners voted 5-4 in February to approve the proposal. On April 1 at 9 a.m., a legislative committee will hold a public hearing on the plan at the State House in Concord. Meanwhile, the proposal has sparked a debate between outdoors enthusiasts; some want to see bobcats left alone, while others believe a hunting and trapping season will yield more data on the species and ultimately help manage the population.

Bouncing back

Bobcat numbers declined in New Hampshire in the 1980s, according to Litvaitis. Their primary prey, New England cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hare, experienced their own population decline. Coyote numbers increased, creating more competition for food. Bobcat pelts also became valuable, leading to an increase in hunting. It was a “triple whammy,” Litvaitis says.

Bobcats were listed as a protected species in 1989, and since then, the bobcat population has increased. The proliferation of wild turkeys has helped, according to Litvaitis. Bobcats have also learned some new tricks — namely, that squirrels and other animals like to hang out under backyard bird feeders, which has opened up another food source.

“We’ve got a number of photos of bobcats spending time underneath bird feeders, which is obviously a learned behavior, but it’s a pretty remarkable one,” he says. “Most of us who work with bobcats think of them as being reticent and shy of humans.”

Litvaitis’ study estimates there are about 1,400 adult bobcats in the state in the springtime. The weather affects the species greatly. Bobcats don’t do well in deep snow, according to Litvaitis, and while they’re found throughout the state, their numbers thin out the farther north you go. Carnivores like bobcats “tell you a lot about what’s going on” in the environment, Litvaitis says.

“At low densities, they’re fairly sensitive to changes in environment, whether it’s prey or other attributes. So they’re a good animal to reveal how healthy our natural world is,” he says.

A question of management

If public opinion is any indication, bobcats are a beloved species among Granite Staters. Fred Clews Jr. is a Fish and Game commissioner representing the Seacoast. Fish and Game rule changes don’t typically draw big crowds, but when the commission began holding public hearings on the bobcat hunting proposal, “it was just unbelievable, the outpouring of people who were against it,” Clews says.

The proposal would open up a bobcat hunting season in December and a trapping season in January. Fish and Game would award 50 hunting permits through a lottery; the permits would cost $100 each.

Clews voted against the proposal. “If you’ve got 1,400 bobcats, why don’t we just let it slide for a couple years, two or three or five years, and see how many we have then and make sure they’re coming back,” he says. “(We’re) jumping the gun … let’s wait until we get 2,000 bobcats until we start doing something.”

Since the commission voted in February, the debate has only grown more heated. John Harrigan, a journalist and long-time outdoors columnist who lives in Colebrook, says that hearings on most Fish and Game proposals could be held “in a shoebox.” That the commission’s February vote took place in Representative’s Hall in the State House was an illustration of how many people oppose the hunt, Harrigan says.

He includes himself among the opposition, and says the debate isn’t a “hunting versus anti-hunting issue.” A large portion of those opposed are hunters, he says. Instead, it’s a question of management — those opposed believe the best way to manage the bobcat population is to leave it alone, while those in favor say a bobcat hunt will ultimately help conserve the species.

“The bobcat does not need the hand of man to manage it, because it manages itself quite nicely. It tailors its own population directly to the abundance or scarcity of prey species,” Harrigan says. “The notion we have this moral obligation to wrap ourselves in the righteous flag of management … that’s totally bankrupt.”

The New Hampshire Trappers Association has come out in support of the hunt. Richard Lafluer, the association’s education director, says that hunters and trappers in the state helped press for closing bobcat season in the 1980s. Now that the animal’s population is growing again, he says, it’s time to open the season once more. Trappers must file fur reports with the state and let officials know what they’ve caught; that data can help with conservation, LaFluer says. So can harvesting excess animals just before the winter.

“The animals left out there in the winter are actually better off (due to hunting) — there’s more food available and they’re able to sustain themselves better … during the mating season,” he says.

Opposition to the hunt is understandable, Lafluer says. “I know it’s an emotional issue … and I certainly respect anybody else’s ideology. It’s not a matter of heart; it’s a matter of knowledge. That’s where we stand very firmly,” he says.

The impact

If the proposal is approved, it’s unlikely the bobcat population would be drastically affected, according to Litvaitis. Fish and Game biologists estimate that, in an average year, bobcats in the state will have about 150 kittens — harvesting 50 of those animals wouldn’t have a major impact.

Except that bobcats don’t have “average” years, Litvaitis adds.

“It’s either a great year or a horrible year,” he says. A snowy, cold winter translates into a bad year for bobcats, which can drive population numbers down, while a warm winter might bring numbers up. Last winter was bad for bobcats; this winter was good, Livaitis says, and that means there could be marked differences in bobcat numbers in the future.

A bobcat hunt would have a financial impact, though, at least on Fish and Game, which has been struggling financially in recent years. Fish and Game commissi