|The bobcat, lynx rufus, is about twice the size of its distant cousin, the common domestic cat, and it has been called wildcat, bay lynx, lynx cat and red lynx. Bobcats were once common throughout Wisconsin, but as the settlers cleared woodlands for farming, their range became more limited to the northern part of the state. The cats were killed without restriction for both sport and bounty for nearly a century, as the early settlers considered them a threat to livestock. It wasn't until 1970 that some protection was offered, when a 5 1/2-month harvest season was established.
Adult bobcats normally weigh about 20 pounds, but large 40-pound males have been reported in Wisconsin. Females average about 1/3 smaller than the males. Identifying features of both sexes are short "bobbed" tails and sideburn cheek whiskers. The Canada lynx, a protected species, is Wisconsin's only other feline that could be mistaken for a bobcat, and the two can be distinguished by the bobcat being smaller in size and having irregular dark markings only on the top half of their tail and shorter tufts of hair on the ear tips. Bobcat tracks are slightly larger than a house cat's tracks, while the Canada lynx tracks are more than 4 inches across. The dark gray or tan colored fur on the bobcat's back gradually fades into a white or cream-colored underbelly. During spring and summer, the coat may have a reddish tone, thus the scientific name rufus, which is Latin for red. Irregular black spots and blotches give the bobcat a dappled appearance and provide camouflage as it hunts for prey in thick underbrush.
Bobcats take several different mates during their lifetime. The mating season normally occurs during late February or March in Wisconsin, but breeding may keep going for an extended period of time. Males aren't sexually mature until two years of age, and few females produce a litter before their second year. Females generally give birth to 2-3 kittens, some time between April and July, in dens located in caves, rock crevices, hollow logs or trees, and beneath trees that have fallen down. The mother forms dry leaves, moss or grass into a gentle depression before the birth of the kits. The same den site may be used year after year, although alternate den sites are readied and used when the kittens are old enough to travel or if the female is frequently disturbed while rearing her young. Bobcat kittens are born fully furred, but their eyes don't open for about ten days. Survival of the young is heavily dependent on the food supply, and when food is plentiful, many kittens survive. The kittens are raised entirely by the female, and weigh 10-12 ounces at birth. They gain up to .4 ounces per day, and will weigh 5-10 pounds by autumn. After they are about 4 weeks old, the kittens begin to leave the den and start taking solid food provided by the mother. Bobcat teenagers leave their mother's territory before she gives birth to a litter the following year.
Snowshoe hares and cottontail rabbits are the primary prey, but porcupines, squirrels, woodchucks and birds are also taken, and even mice, voles, shrews, reptiles and insects are eaten when available. Food studies show that white-tailed deer are the second most common food item for Wisconsin bobcats, but these studies are conducted shortly after the gun deer season, so it is difficult at best to determine what percentage of the deer were actually killed by the cats and what percentage were scavenged from deer shot by hunters and not recovered. Evidence indicates that bobcats kill very few deer unless other foods become scarce, and when they do take deer, they are most likely to kill sick, injured, young or very old animals.
Heavily forested areas of northern Wisconsin hold the majority of the bobcat population, and the cats seem to prefer alder thickets and coniferous swamps containing black spruce, white cedar or balsam fir trees. In the southern part of this northern range, uplands are used more extensively where conifer swamps are rare. Females have a home range of about 15 square miles, while the male's range is normally close to 25 square miles. The home ranges of males overlap one another, and the ranges of 1 or 2 females. Resident females with established territories do not tolerate other breeding females, and a resident bobcat warns visitors to stay out of its territory by marking the boundaries with feces, urine, and gland secretions, thus generally avoiding fights. A moving population of transient bobcats, mostly non-breeding juveniles and yearlings, wander extensively until each locates a vacant territory where they can settle. These roamers often travel through home ranges, but they avoid the areas that are heavily used by the resident bobcats. Tagged juveniles have been known to disperse nearly 100 miles before establishing their own territories. Bobcats are most active during the twilight hours of sunrise and sunset, while daylight activity seems to increase during the winter. Male bobcats move about 2.6 miles per week on average, while females average only about 1.6 miles per week. Logging roads, railroad easements and game trails are used to move between resting places, food sources or hunting areas, especially during times of deep snow. Bobcats, mostly kittens, may fall prey to coyotes, hawks, owls and eagles, and coyotes help keep the population in check because they can more successfully compete for food. The cats are also susceptible to rabies, tularemia, feline panleukopenia, leptospirosis, and a variety of other diseases and parasites.
Based on harvest data and field observations, Wisconsin's greatest bobcat populations are found in the north central part of the state. There has been a slight decline of cats in this area during the last ten years, but this may have been offset by increases in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the state. Bobcats have only occasionally been seen in central and southern Wisconsin, mostly in the valleys of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, but recent sightings have been reported as far south as Dane, Iowa and Sauk counties. The state's management goal is to maintain a population of 3,000-5,000 bobcats, and due primarily to high pelt prices, regulations had to be tightened to restrict harvest to biologically safe levels. Approximately 200 cats are harvested each year, fairly equally divided between trapping and hunting with dogs, with relatively few being taken by hunters using predator calls. Weather conditions may swing the pendulum towards one group, with most trappers preferring dry weather with above freezing temperatures while hunters with dogs would rather see moderate snow cover for tracking. Because 45% of the bobcats trapped in Wisconsin are caught in fox and coyote sets, the seasons were made concurrent to ensure that cats taken accidentally could be legally kept by the trapper if he or she had a possession tag. Under normal weather conditions, a 2-2½ month harvest season is ample for bobcat harvesters without causing harm to populations.