Thursday, March 06, 2008

Bobcats in the Prairie State

Bobcats in the Prairie State

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Early one recent morning Urbana resident Roger Digges was out for his regular sunrise walk at Meadowbrook Park. He was listening for the first migrating birds of the Spring and following the tracks a pair of coyotes had left in the slushy snow next to the path. Then he saw something unusual, an animal he thinks was a bobcat.

He described the animal this way:
It seemed relatively short in length for the size of its body, and it had a stubby tail, which stuck up. Its fur was patterned, although the light was too dim to see the pattern clearly. It had a large head with a wide face that seemed “squashed,” and prominent tufted ears. When it paused to look at me I could see a hint of yellow in its eyes. I could have been fooled by the low light, but it certainly moved in a feline rather than canine fashion, and it was much larger than any domestic cat.

As a long-time birder, Roger Digges is accustomed to the questions that arise when someone reports an improbable observation, but the features he describes characterize a bobcat very well. [Photo by Michael Jeffords. A captive bobcat at Wildlife Prairie State Park rests on a branch during the day. Bobcats are most active at night, when people are least likely to see them.]

You might be surprised to learn that bobcats are not really a rarity in Illinois anymore, at least not where suitable habitat exists.

Bobcats inhabited the entire state prior to 1820, but their populations declined dramatically over the course of the following century as a result of habitat loss and unregulated hunting and trapping. They were added to the state list of threatened species in 1977. Scientific studies conducted during the 1990s, however, found that bobcats had become widely distributed in suitable habitat and that their numbers were continuing to grow, and they were removed from the state list of threatened species in 1999.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, there have been reliable reports of bobcats in 99 of the 102 counties statewide in the past two decades. By far the greatest numbers of Illinois bobcats are found in the southern third of the state, where the greatest amount of wooded habitat exists, especially in the Shawnee National Forest. Population estimates based on available territory suggest that perhaps 2,200 bobcats may now be living in Illinois south of Interstate 64. Consistent reports of bobcats in Jo Daviess County indicate the presence of another population in the northwestern corner of the state. Bobcats also occur at lower densities in the wooded corridors along the Mississippi, Illinois, and Kaskaskia rivers.

Like other animals that coexist successfully with humans, bobcats are adaptable creatures. They feed on a variety of small prey and use whatever suitable structures are available for dens, anything from fallen trees and hollow logs to rock piles, caves and abandoned buildings. In addition, bobcats are most active when we are least likely to see them—at dawn and dusk, and during the night. Because they are small and inclined to avoid us, bobcats normally represent no threat to people.

Unfortunately for anyone who might hope to see bobcats in Champaign-Urbana, they are probably not adaptable enough to take up residence here, where so little forest exists. But it is exciting to think that Roger Digges might have seen one passing through here, all the same.