Bobcat season continues through March 15 in North Dakota
Bismarck, N.D. (AP) – In the past decade or so one North Dakota felid has garnered the lion's share of headlines when it comes to predators.
Mountain lions – rightly or wrongly – have been an attention-getter each time one has been killed either by a hunter or someone protecting their home or property.
But another North Dakota cat, likely as widespread and numerous as the cougar, has gone on about its business for decades with little fanfare.
Bobcats, or Lynx rufus if you want to go scientific, have probably been one of the state's most economically significant furbearers over the long haul.
They are twice the size of a big tom cat. And, depending on the fur market, a prime bobcat pelt can fetch upward of $350.
Unlike mountain lions, bobcats only can be harvested south and west of the Missouri River.
And bobcats can be either trapped or shot whereas mountain lions can only be legally killed with guns.
Stephanie Tucker is the furbearer biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
She said while bobcats may be as high profile to some, they are more closely managed because of international treaties.
Of the 12 subspecies in the world, North America is home to just two: the bobcat and the Canada lynx.
Bobcats are not listed as an endangered species while the Canada lynx is, so they are both regulated under what is known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
All bobcat pelts must be turned in within two weeks of the end of the season, unlike mountain lions where a 12-hour notification is required and whole carcasses must be turned in for examination.
Tucker said the reason for the difference is bobcats have been at a sustainable population level for generations in North Dakota compared to mountain lions.
There is a quota of 14 mountain lions in the Badlands zone for the early season and a seven cat limit for the late season, which is reserved for hound hunters and opens after the deer gun season.
Mountain lions have two zones for hunting: the second zone encompassing the remainder of the state outside of the Badlands. That zone has no limit.
Bobcat season runs from Nov. 10 through March 15 while mountain lion season runs Aug. 31 through March 31 statewide this season.
Tucker said while the largest segment of the state's bobcat breeding population is in the Badlands, they have fanned out in other parts of the state.
The two criteria that bobcats need to thrive is same as it is for all animals – food and cover.
Bobcats stalk and ambush predators and require the kind of cover which helps conceal them when they are on the hunt.
Tucker said that does limit them somewhat when it comes to areas they call their home range.
'They never will be prairie animals,'' she said. They have, however, branched out to form smaller breeding populations along some of the river corridors draining out of the Badlands, like the Cannonball, Knife and Heart rivers.
She said there also is a smaller breeding population in the Pembina Hills region, a group that expended westward from Minnesota.
Genetically, Tucker said they are distinctly different than the animals in the southwestern part of the state which are closely related to bobcats in the Black Hills and eastern Montana.
Managing animals that are so elusive in their lives presents challenges. Tucker said in an average year, between 50-75 bobcats will be killed in North Dakota.
Besides fur market influences, she said the weather and amount of snowfall also affects the harvest.
Heavy snowfall years tend to keep the harvest numbers down because fewer hunters and trappers are out after them.
And, during the 2008-09 season, bobcats were taken in only 10 counties, meaning the pool of hunters and trappers going after them is fairly small.
But based on the small pool, Tucker said the state's bobcat population is in good shape.
"The problem with live bobcats is they are virtually impossible to survey,'' she said.
Live-trapping bobcats would be labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive so biologists here use population models.
She said using harvest information from hunters and trappers, "We're validating our assumptions on those models.''
There are some differences in habits when comparing mountain lions with bobcats.
Mountain lions will mate and breed throughout the year while bobcats breed between February and March and after a 60-day gestation period, give birth to two or three kittens per year in late April or May.
And their home ranges are about half the size of a cougar's. Tucker said adult female bobcats will have a home range of 10-24 square miles while a male's will be between 25-55 square miles.
Mountain lion females have a home range of between 25-50 square miles, Tucker said, while a male's can be as large as 100 square miles.
And of course there is the size difference. A big female bobcat might weigh 20 pounds and a big male maybe 35 pounds.
Diets are different as well with bobcats relying mostly on rabbits but will feed on smaller rodents and even bugs to get by.
So while being quite elusive, bobcats also have proved to be fairly resilient.
Tucker said there was time when the cats were hunted heavily and numbers were down across the nation. But they have bounced back, she said.
"There has been a serious range expansion, especially in the corn belt region.'' Tucker said.
Tucker did five years of graduate-level research on bobcats in Iowa and said population numbers crept up slowly but surely.
"It took a long time,'' she said.
What effect oil and natural gas exploration in the Badlands may have on bobcats remains to be seen but like other wildlife, if their food source dwindles, so do they.
She said the biggest challenge in managing bobcats is that it's a reactive style of management.
By the time changes are needed, she said they have been happening for a number of years.
But there is more data on bobcats in this area than ever before and for the most part, Tucker said a bobcat is a bobcat whether it's in the North Dakota Badlands or the forests of northern Minnesota.
And, she said, they have proven to be just as versatile as they are wily.
"They have shown they can tolerate people and live around us … if we can tolerate them.''