Notice any bobcats around town lately? It may be more likely these days. Wildlife experts from around the state agree that the animal’s population is on the rise based on an increased number of sightings over the last decade.
However, there is no formal or scientific study — only observations from groups such as hunters, conservationists and concerned homeowners — to verify that assumption.
That’s why the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) is planning to launch a population project specifically for bobcats that could start as early as next year.
“We’ve been planning on having one for a little while and if everything goes right, then it should begin next year,” said Paul Rego, a DEEP wildlife biologist.
“It’s hard for us to tell when exactly the population started to increase here in Connecticut because all we have is anecdotal evidence and reports of them being sighted by the general public,” he said. “We’ve never done a population estimate for the state, let alone an individual county.”
Bobcats can be seen in Shelton, with readers sending photos to the Herald of bobcats in yards from both Huntington and White Hills last fall, and from White Hills in the spring of 2013.
Teresa Gallagher, Shelton’s conservation agent, has said bobcat sightings are common in Shelton although the animals tend to avoid people. “If you open a door and a bobcat is there, it will run away,” she said.
Bobcats also are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night, so daytime sightings are unusual.
Rego added that DEEP’s Wildlife Division averages more than 200 bobcat reports per year across the state. Comparatively, the state only received 65 such calls two decades ago.
“We averaged 75 sightings through the late ‘90s and then that number went up to around 115 reports back about 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s been a pretty steady increase over the past 20 years.”
Besides sightings in nature, Rego said that DEEP has gotten more reports about bobcats getting struck by vehicles and more calls about them attacking pets, specifically cats.
He clarified that DEEP doesn’t break down those incidents into specific categories.
“We don’t have any numbers specifically for them fighting with pets; that’s just usually lumped into a general sighting,” Rego explained. “We have gotten a lot more calls about them going after poultry —chickens are a temptation for them.”
Rego added that the best way for pet owners to protect their animals is to stay around them as much as possible.
“Human presence seems to be a pretty good preventive measure,” he said. “Bobcats tend to be shy and they don’t typically approach another animal if a human is around.”
Whenever the population study does begin, biologists will use high-frequency radio telemetry collars to track individual animals from a distance.
Rego said it will only cover a sample of the population, but that more bobcats could be tracked to better understand reproductive levels as well as habitat patterns.
According to Peter Reid, assistant director of Wildlife in Crisis in Weston, one reason for the apparent population increase is that bobcats have been moving their dens closer to humans to avoid contact with predators such as coyotes.
“They have more than one den site and what we’ve been seeing recently is they don’t have much of a problem denning close to humans,” Reid said. “We’ve seen this happen in the past before with red foxes and other predators chasing away other prey animals who are just looking to survive.”
Little threat to humans
Reid agreed with Rego’s assessment that the animal was not a threat to humans.
Pets, on the other hand, are more vulnerable.
“If you know there’s a bobcat near your house, then you should alter your behavior accordingly,” he said. “Make sure your cats are inside, there’s an enclosure for your dog — take the necessary preventive measures to protect your pets…
“Bobcats are here to stay, so this is something we have to get used to doing,” he added.
While being cautious always helps, Reid said that pet owners shouldn’t be too worried because bobcats tend to chase smaller creatures like squirrels and rabbits — not cats and dogs.
“They hunt rodents and their behaviors are similar to cats,” he explained. “In general, they will stay clear of other animals because they’re quite shy, but there are some situations to be aware of…
“The real danger is having your dog chase after a bobcat,” Reid added. “That has the potential for an issue — one of those small, exotic breeds going after a large, muscular cat.”
Reached ‘historic levels’
Although Rego couldn’t say with certainty the bobcat population is at an all-time high, Reid believes that it has reached “historic levels.”
“It’s safe to say, with the way the population has been expanding, that this is most we’ve ever had here,” he said. “Maybe it’s just because they’re closer to us than ever before, but there does seem to be more of them everywhere — it’s not just because of proximity to residences.”
Reid urges those who see bobcats in their yards to call Wildlife in Crisis or DEEP with any concerns.
“They are a part of our ecosystem so we should try to practice a ‘live and let live’ model rather than trying to get aggressive towards them,” he said. “Our yards are part of their habitat and it’s important for us to understand that — they’re here, but they’re not dangerous.”