Bobcat 'harvest' closes short of limit
Some 343 bobcats were taken during the three-month season, but the hunt remains controversial
By Ted Cox
Hunters and trappers “harvested” 343 bobcats during the three-month hunting season in Illinois this winter, slightly short of the state limit set at 375.
But, after three years of renewed bobcat hunting, the practice remains controversial, especially for wildlife groups.
According to figures released by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the 343 taken this winter between Nov. 10 and Feb. 15 was down slightly from 358 last year, but did that mean the population was down — especially given the unusually harsh weather — making them harder to find, or were they just more lucky in escaping kill and capture? No one knows for sure.
“There's no evidence in this report that the Rauner administration was monitoring the overall health of bobcat population,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter. “This is critically important given the fact that we are unfortunately allowing the trapping and shooting of these predators just as they are beginning to recover.”
“They’re really notoriously difficult to study the population,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, which has opposed the hunt. She added that, according to the National Bobcat Rescue Foundation, “something like half of all reported bobcat sightings are really feral cats. So people misidentify them all the time.”
Bobcats are slightly larger than domestic cats. They have a head-body length of 25 to 35 inches, and weigh between 15 and 30 pounds. They’re known, of course, by the distinctive, short “bobbed” tail. They’re furtive and stealthy and “mostly nocturnal and solitary,” according to an IDNR webpage on the species. They’re ferocious enough to live on their own at two months.
“We don’t have full population studies. We don’t have a conservation management plan for the species,” Walling said. “We remain concerned that the populations are not sustainable enough to handle a hunting season.”
The Sierra Club Illinois Chapter likewise continues to oppose the bobcat hunting season, saying: “Thanks to past conservation efforts, important predators like bobcats are returning to Illinois. We need to close the hunting and trapping season on bobcats opened by Bruce Rauner, and develop science-based recovery plans for returning predators.”
Bobcats thrived enough to be removed from the list of threatened species in 1999. The Rauner administration oversaw reopening of a hunting season two years ago, when 141 were “harvested or salvaged by permit holders,” according to IDNR.
The season was expanded to 1,000 permits last winter, selected by lottery from applicants, with a limit set at one a permit with a total maximum of 350. The season was supposed to close when that limit was reached. Some 358 were taken, including 40 “salvaged,” meaning bagged as road kill, which does count as a permit holder’s lone bobcat.
The limit was expanded again to 375 this winter, but the total pulled up short of that at 343. Some 159 were shot with guns and 18 by bow and arrow, with 129 trapped and 37 salvaged.
Both Darin and Walling took issue with the entire notion of trapping bobcats. Walling said trappers were the key lobbying group behind adoption of the bobcat hunt.
“This is being done not for sport, for science-based wildlife management, but for the value of their pelts,” Darin charged.
Walling said bobcats have been spotted in all Illinois counties, including Cook. Yet bobcat hunting is banned in the northeastern third of the state, basically permitted in counties along the Mississippi River and then south of a border running inland including Warren, Fulton, and Tazewell counties, down through Mason, Menard, and Sangamon counties and then south of U.S. Routes 121 and 36.
“Of the zoologists, biologists, scientists that we talk to, we think the decision to open the bobcat season was more political than based on science,” Walling said. “They kind of serve as an apex predator now, because we’ve gotten rid of a lot of apex predators. But they’re a mesopredator actually, they’re sort of in the middle. But they serve a really important function in controlling the population of rodents.
“Bobcats are a really important predator for ecosystems.”
Because of that, the Illinois Environmental Council and the Sierra Club believe it’s better to err on the side of caution and limit the hunt if not end it entirely, but for now the status quo prevails — in the law and, one hopes, in nature.