No shortage of bobcats found in WIU study area

Macomb, Ill. — Chris Jacques is a happy man these days – and a lot of his happiness is due to trapper participation in Tim Swearingen’s bobcat study.

“At the outset of the field work last year, Tim’s goal was to capture, collar, and track 20 bobcats, said Jacques, an assistant professor at Western Illinois University. “We would have been pretty happy with 10 to15. As it turns out, thanks to trappers, we have collared and successfully released 21 bobcats.

By Jan. 20, the end of the north zone trapping season, the project had 19 bobcats with working collars. The study had 20 collars available and Swearingen, a WIU graduate student, was confident he’d get the last one filled by the end of January.

Two of the bobcats collared last year died – one was hit by a train, the other hit by a car. Most of the information on bobcats in Illinois comes from the southern part of the state. The WIU study in the west-central part of the state, along with anecdotal evidence from trappers and hunters, is indicating a significant number of bobcats where higher quality habitat exists, especially in southern Schuyler County and into adjacent Hancock County.

The radio collars have a range of 2 to 3 miles and much of the researchers’ time is spent locating bobcats to build a data set to calculate home ranges and seasonal movements. Future grants will take time into consideration, and will be written to include more airplane use.

“Increased aerial telemetry support during our current study would have been nice,” said Jacques. “But it is expensive at $211 an hour. The nice part is that in five to six hours of flying time, we should be able to locate all of our radio-collared bobcats.”

The study area was limited to McDonough, Hancock, Fulton and Schuyler counties.  Last year, trapping on his own, Swearingen captured and released seven bobcats. This season, working with trappers in this area, the study collared and released 14 cats, 12 of which were caught by trappers who contacted the study.

These trappers received a $150 reward to allow the project personnel to anesthetize the bobcat, collect morphometric data – such as body weight, body measurements, overall condition, age, sex, etc. –  and DNA samples, utilizing the plug of tissue removed from the ear during the ear tagging process. All bobcats were ear-tagged and fitted with a tracking collar, which should allow researchers to monitor movement and survival over the next three to four years.

The study prefers to limit the capture period to about 40 minutes, at which time a reversal agent is injected. The reversal drug acts quickly and the bobcat is released.

“Our goal this past fall and winter was to work with trappers to collar as many bobcats as we could,” explained Jacques. “We fully recognize that we would not have successfully collared as many bobcats as we did without the support of trappers.”

While several of the cats were caught in live traps, the vast majority were caught in foothold traps typically set for canines such as fox and coyote. According to Jacques, who has been conducting wildlife research and animal capturing across the Midwest for the past 18 years, these traps are “the workhorse of predator capture techniques.”  The traps cause little to no foot damage. As Jacques noted, “We had no foot damage on any of the bobcats trapped other than some minor skin abrasions and one small cat with a broken toe.”

Foothold traps have served as capture and holding devices for numerous wildlife studies in Illinois and all over the country.  They are used because they are often the only reliable capture device and would not be used if the devices caused harm to the animals captured. The successful otter reintroduction here in Illinois in the 1990s was done with otters that were all captured with foothold traps.

Adding to the effort to protect bobcats in the project was the limited study area, which allows personnel to be onsite to collar a trapped bobcat within 90 minutes of the trapper’s call.  According to Jacques, “We had no complaints from trappers about how long it took us to arrive at the capture site.”

Speaking of trappers, one of the mainstays of the study was veteran Hancock County trapper Donny Hiland. Hiland, 54, hails from Augusta and has trapped for over 40 years.

While he often puts up some pretty big numbers – for example, 300 or so raccoons in a 10-day period – with fur prices down he took it a bit easier this year.

“I rarely trap more than a 5- mile radius from my own property,” said Hiland.  “I’ve not been going after raccoons this year, although I’ve caught a few in dirthole sets. I’ve been trapping a few coyote and I’ve also caught six bobcats this year.”

Hiland heard about the study from park personnel at Weinberg-King State Park, where he was given contact information for the WIU study. He called Swearingen when he caught his first bobcat at the beginning of the trapping season, and the study successfully collared and released all six bobcats he caught.

Two of the cats collared this year were caught on his own 100-acre farm near Augusta.

“These are pretty incredible animals,” he said.  “We’ll all learn a lot from this study. I’m all for anything that will help to educate people concerning bobcats, about which some people seem to have a lot of misunderstanding.”

He is also hoping the study will help support the DNR when it comes to the number of bobcat tags issued by the state.

“I think we have more bobcats than anyone realizes,” said Hiland. “Using studies like this will give us real numbers that can be used as a basis for fairly determining the number of tags that should be issued.”

Hiland nor his wife, who also traps, drew a bobcat tag this year.

While capture work is winding down, Swearingen has a considerable amount of fieldwork yet to accomplish. He has begun setting out some 70 trail cameras to collect capture/recapture data during the breeding season over the next couple of months.  In April, he will again be using cameras to collect data.

The intent of the April study will be to define how and where the cameras will need to be placed to best detect bobcats within agriculturally dominated landscapes of west-central Illinois.  After that will be lots of data analysis to prepare his preliminary findings for presentation at the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference.

The study will officially end June 30. Looking ahead, Jacques hopes to build on this year’s study with work in subsequent years.

He would like to add survival components and continue to develop a camera survey protocol for estimating bobcat abundance.

Jacques is in the process of writing a grant for the next season that he hopes will be in place by July 1 so that the current study can continue uninterrupted.

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