Ashland, Wis. — It took years of pushing from sportsmen and lots of scientific data, but bobcat hunters and trappers are finally enjoying the chance to pursue their quarry in central and southern Wisconsin for the first time in many decades.
In the past, bobcat season was only open north of Hwy. 64. This season, the state was broken into a northern zone and a southern zone, demarcated by that highway.
“The opening of this southern bobcat unit has been a long time coming,” said Ralph Fritsch, of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, who was instrumental in establishing the southern bobcat season. “It took quite a few years to get the department to agree to that.”
“There’s been definite harvester interest south of Hwy. 64 for quite some time,” said Geriann Albers, assistant furbearer biologist for the Wisconsin DNR.
“We feel there’s a sufficient amount of bobcats in the southern unit to be harvested,” Fritsch added.
A study by a UW-Stevens Point graduate student backed up observations by hunters and trappers that bobcat numbers are increasing in the southern part of the state.
“He (the graduate student) found pretty good densities, enough that they could sustain some level of harvest,” Albers said.
“Everybody you talk to says they see a lot of sign,” Scott Zimmerman, president of the Wisconsin Trappers Association, said of the bobcat population south of Hwy. 64. “I just came back from the Central Forest trapping fisher and saw a lot of cat sign.”
Albers said the DNR estimates the statewide bobcat population at around 3,000 animals, with about 1,000 of those found in the southern zone. She said the bulk of the bobcats in the southern zone inhabit the central and southwestern parts of the state, although they are found in other areas as well, especially dispersing males.
The inaugural southern zone bobcat season runs in two parts concurrently with the northern zone. The first season ran from Oct. 18 through Dec. 25. The second season runs Dec. 26 through Jan. 31. Hunters had to indicate the time period and zone for which they were applying.
Albers said the DNR is taking a conservative approach with the issuance of southern zone tags this first season because it has no previous harvest data. The DNR issued 38 permits for each of the first and second seasons in the southern zone, with a quota of 23 bobcats for each season.
In the north, 190 permits were issued for the first season and 120 permits for the second season, which traditionally has a higher success rate. The quota is 88 bobcats for each time period.
Hunters in the first season registered 15 bobcats in the southern zone and 85 cats in the north zone.
The current season structure with two separate seasons has been in place for a handful of years now. Previously, there was just a single time period, with the season ending Dec. 31.
“It allows more opportunity and we push for more opportunity,” Zimmerman said. “Trappers tend to go to the earlier one.”
The second season is predominated by hound hunters, who look for snow on the ground to help them find tracks for their dogs to trail.
Last year’s season success rate was 68 percent overall, with a 62-percent success rate the first period and a 75-percent success rate the second period.
“They’re much higher in the second time period,” Albers said. “Hunting (bobcats) with hounds is much more efficient.”
Success rates have improved a great deal in recent years.
“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, our success rates were under 10 percent,” Albers said.
As a result, fewer permits are issued each year, which increases the wait time to get a permit. This year, it took at least seven preference points to get a tag in the early season and at least eight for the late season. Albers said about 16,000 people applied for a bobcat harvest tag or preference point this year.
Several factors may have contributed to the increased success rates. Expanded use of hounds and better education on how to hunt and trap bobcats may contribute to success. The length of time it takes to get a permit also may prompt hunters and trappers to put forth more effort.
Hunters and trappers attribute the higher success rates to what they believe are higher bobcat numbers now than 20 or 30 years ago.
Albers said the DNR collects carcasses from all bobcats registered and looks at reproductive productivity, among other things, which can vary each year.
“One year we could have adult females 80 percent breeding and the next year 40 percent, so a lot of it is linked to prey base,” Albers said.
She said after all the harvest figures are in for both time periods this year, the DNR will look at the numbers in preparation for next season.
“It seems like the population is expanding throughout the Midwest,” Albers said. “We’re definitely going to keep an eye on it. This is the first time we’re going to have any reproductive data for the southern zone. It’ll be a couple years before we see any trends.”
“Usually in a new season, they’re going to go very conservative in the first three years,” Zimmerman forecast. “Maybe after that they’ll increase the quotas.”