The early January morning turned out cool, clear and windless — a perfect day to call coyotes.
A half-mile from my house, I parked my truck, then walked several hundred yards before I tucked my frame under the low branches of a red cedar tree. Having previously seen coyote tracks in the area, I settled in and emitted a low series of rabbit distress calls.
In the next 15 minutes, only an owl investigated the early morning medley of sounds. I was about to move to another spot when I saw a slight movement 40 yards away near a large brush pile. I pointed my shotgun in the general direction, but quickly lowered it as a large predator climbed on a log to search for the injured rabbit.
The animal was decorated with a black collar and a short antenna.
Like hundreds of Iowa sportsmen, I had encountered a bobcat. Actually, I think I had seen the ‘cat three times in the past year. The animal is one of many collared bobcats the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is studying to determine the species’ habits and movements in the Hawkeye State.
DNR tracking results show this particular cat’s movements put it near my rural southwest Iowa home on numerous occasions. It was nice to know this native Iowa furbearer had returned in numbers and is expanding its range.
Tracking Hawkeye Bobcats
Contrary to popular opinion, bobcats were not reintroduced by the DNR in Iowa. According to Todd Gosselink, DNR wildlife biologist, bobcats are not a new species to Iowa. Scarce remnant populations existed, and sightings have been reported throughout the state in the past 50 years.
Although a few individual animals were scattered in the state during the past few decades, bobcats began to appear in greater numbers in the past 10 years. Many were probably migrants from neighboring states.
But the bobcats’ population increase prompted the DNR to initiate a three-year bobcat ecology study in 2003. According to Gosselink, researchers have radio-tagged 68 bobcats since March 2003 in the south-central Iowa counties of Warren, Marion, Clarke, Lucas, Monroe, Decatur, Appanoose, and Davis.
Many of the tagged animals were accidentally caught by trappers. When called, DNR officials rush to the scene, sedate the cat and attach a tracking collar to the animal. The collar does not affect the animal in any way, yet allows the study crew to record the movements of this elusive Iowa predator.
More than 475 bobcat sightings have been reported since fall 2003. My conversations with area farmers and hunters indicate numerous sightings go unreported.
Most Iowa bobcat sightings occurred along the three southern tiers of Iowa counties. However, a few sightings and accidental deaths of bobcats occurred in the western counties of the Loess Hills area bordering Nebraska. Sightings have also been reported in Iowa’s northeast counties that border Illinois and Wisconsin. Populations of bobcats appear to be settling there.
Bow-hunters report the most sightings of the shy bobcat. From elevated stands, bow-hunters are treated to a close-up glimpse into the habits and haunts of Iowa ‘cats.
Roaming for Homes
One of the reasons Iowa bobcats are spreading their range is their ability to seek new haunts.
Research indicates Iowa’s bobcats appear to be bigger travelers than their cousins in the Midwestern neighboring states of Kansas and Missouri. Juvenile male bobcats in Iowa travel an average of 80 miles in search of new territories and females.
Young females in the Hawkeye state travel much less distance and dispersed only an average of 12 miles from their home-raised area.
One adventuresome young male actually hiked 160 miles to find a suitable area to settle. Just this year, another young male bobcat, collared several years ago near Chariton in south-central Iowa, was snared 50 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska, some 180 miles away. Iowa researchers had lost track of the bobcat a couple of years ago.
The results show Iowa bobcats might help to repopulate border state areas where ‘cats are not abundant. Western Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin are areas where Iowa’s bobcats could roam to find homes.
Iowa’s bobcat population is steadily increasing by about 7 percent per year. Because bobcats are primarily a forest dwellers, Iowans and other Midwesterners stand the best chance of seeing them along the rivers and streams with surrounding timber cover.
Bobcats do not seem to want to live in Iowa’s farm fields and grasslands. Few have been tracked into these areas.
Based on the behavior of the radio-collared animals, Gosselink expects the next wave of bobcat expansion will follow past bobcat patterns, with animals moving into suitable habitat along river and stream tributaries.
Like their counterparts in other states, Iowa’s bobcats are excellent solitary hunters. Examined animals have been quite healthy.
Bobcats are ambush predators. Principal prey are rabbits and mice, but bobcats also take birds, turkey poults and small deer fawns.
The study shows Hawkeye bobcats are a medium-sized predator, but they are somewhat larger than their relatives in southern states. Female bobcats average 20 to 22 pounds. Males are larger, averaging 26 to 28 pounds. The largest male bobcat in the study tipped the scales at 33 pounds.
Bobcats are not prolific breeders, but the mature females — 2 years old and older — usually have a single litter each year of two to four kittens. Studies show that kittens and yearling bobcats are particularly vulnerable, with a mortality rate of about 30 percent.
After they reach adulthood, most bobcats live three to five years, but they have been known to reach the ripe old age of 10.
Harvest on the Horizon
Until this year, bobcats were protected in the Iowa. Now, the population is doing well enough to sustain a harvest season.
On June 19, Iowa’s Natural Resource Commission approved a limited harvest of bobcats this season, setting a quota of 150 animals. The season, set for Nov. 3 through Jan. 31, 2008, or until the quota is reached, includes 21 counties in the southern third of the state.
Hunters and trappers possessing a valid fur harvester license and a habitat stamp can take one bobcat per season. Bobcat harvest must be reported to a DNR conservation officer or employee within 24 hours. The DNR employee will tag the ‘cat and register it into the agency’s harvest reporting system.
Trappers reportedly caught 160 bobcats incidentally last season, so the 2007-08 harvest quota is likely to be reached. In the past, incidental bobcats had to be released when possible, or turned over to the DNR.
The harvest season is not expected to affect the expansion of the bobcat’s range in Iowa, nor should it halt population growth in counties with an open season.
The return to prominence of Iowa bobcats is a wildlife conservation success story.
Most Iowans might never be lucky enough to view one of these secretive animals, but it is great to know the bobcats are back in the Hawkeye State.
And for the first time in many years, trappers and hunters can enjoy the bounty of one of Iowa’s most elusive furbearers.
Rich Byerly is a predator hunter from Creston, Iowa.