The art of catching a bobcat
Bobcats are notoriously difficult to catch. When I traveled to the Black Rock Forest in upstate New York this winter to capture and tie up bobcats, I tempered my expectations.
However, the crowds at the Christmas celebrations before my excursion had higher hopes. When the conversation turned to plans for the winter break, my reply, “I’m going bobcat hunting,” was met with envy and awe. My friends imagined that I would single-handedly take down the big cat in a snow-covered canyon. “Ecologists have all the fun,” they complained. “All you do is hang out with animals.”
On my first day in Black Rock Forest, the thermometer read 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). I am from Australia; We lament the unbearable cold and start to peel when it drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. As I dressed in the dark, I read the weather warning: Serious frostbite was likely after 30 minutes of wind chill.
Outside the lodge, snow-covered trees covered the hilly landscape in all directions. Although the Black Rock Forest is just over an hour’s drive north of New York City, it retains many of its native ecosystems. The 3,920 hectare forest is home to countless animals, from mink to muskrats, black bears and bald eagles.
The forest’s flagship species is the bobcat. Charismatic and persuasive, the bobcat can attract enough public attention to make developmental decisions that then benefit other species living in the same area.
I had traveled to the Black Rock Forest to see their science team tracking the movements of bobcats. The widespread bobcat was at risk of having its habitat cut off by the road system that meanders through the forest. The team tagged bobcats with GPS tracking collars to better understand their interaction with the surrounding landscape. This data on where and how the bobcat moved could help conservation initiatives to improve connectivity. For example, it could convince developers to build a “wildlife corridor” (that runs above or below a busy road) to facilitate the movement of wildlife.
At daybreak, I drove to the first cage trap with Scott LaPoint, the forest’s research scientist. As the little snow buggy skidded unsteadily across the frozen runway, Scott told me about the Bobcat footage they’d captured with cameras set up around the forest. “They’re definitely around,” Scott remarked, his brown eyes glittering under a thick wool hat.
It was a 10 minute walk along a cliff to the trap from our parking lot. We eagerly searched the snow for fresh paw prints. I had long since lost feeling in my toes, but I doubled my pace. The trap was empty.
Bobcats are solitary animals that occupy large areas. They are also incredibly smart. As we reset the trap, Scott and I debated why the chances of capture were so low.
The trap itself was straightforward—a steel cage with a door that snapped shut when an animal stepped on the pressure pad inside. The real challenge was to pique the interest of a bobcat. For this we had to use a carefully calculated arsenal of visual, olfactory and culinary stimuli.
“The only thing we can bait a bobcat with is its own curiosity,” Scott said.
To capture the eye of a bobcat from afar, we dangled a stream of glowing feathers from a high branch hanging over the cage. Next, Scott handed me an unlabeled bottle of semi-frozen liquid, and I shook it with such force that thick brown liquid splattered my hands. “It’s Bobcat urine,” Scott informed me.
I splashed urine on a nearby branch. This was the #5 Chanel of the bobcat world, and we hoped anyone who caught a whiff of it would be compelled to sneak in and do some research.
At the bottom of the cage we smeared a mix of baits from small tubs with names like “Cat Fantasy” and “Mating Call”. The smell made my eyes water. Despite employing a deft stick-smear technique, enough sticky paste got stuck under my fingernails that even a week later I felt occasional whiffs of disgust and rancidity.
In the cage we hung beaver meat and decorated the floor with dove feathers. As a final garnish to this Bobcat utopia, we sprinkled powdered silvervine – a plant that is highly attractive to many members of the feline family.
One by one we visited the other 17 traps scattered throughout the forest. The more distant traps required over 20 minutes uphill through loose snow to reach them. All traps were empty.
The entire process of checking and resetting each trap took well over 8 hours. The team repeated the process every day for four months. This was Scott’s third year as a trapper.
As we drove out earlier, I asked Scott, “So how many bobcats did you catch in total?” Scott’s response was a terse and unapologetic “Two.”
It’s not uncommon for ecologists, particularly those studying elusive animals, to spend months, possibly years, without ever meeting their focal species firsthand. Not for a second would Scott and I refuse to have feathers plucked from dead pigeons or be spattered with bobcat urine. However, having fun is certainly not for everyone.
Alice Yan is an environmental lawyer and Fulbright Fellow in the Department of Ecology Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. Her research focuses on ecological protection, ecosystem dynamics, and predator-prey relationships.