New theories posed on Bobcat habitsBy Jane Beathard
ATHENS — In the second year of a study to learn more about Ohio’s growing number of bobcats, state wildlife biologists are dismissing some theories and posing new ones.Researcher Suzie Prange heads up the project from the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s wildlife district office in Athens. Object of the study is to learn “how and why” the secretive felines returned to the state, as well as where they are flourishing and in what numbers.Eventually, biologists hope to remove the animal from the state’s endangered species list.
During the winters of 2012 and 2013, Prange trapped 21 bobcats in eastern and southern counties and fitted them with GPS and VHS radio collars. She monitors the ‘cats movements via occasional helicopter flyovers and through local volunteers who track animals collared in Vinton Furnace State Forest.Two of the 21 were road-killed. Two others left for parts unknown and were lost to monitoring.
Previous studies by the DNR found Ohio is home to two distinct bobcat populations — one centered in Noble County and another in Vinton County. An offshoot clan of the Vinton County ‘cats is also prowling Scioto County woodlands.Biologists once believed the Noble County bobcats moved to Ohio from Pennsylvania or West Virginia. They also thought Vinton County’s originated from Kentucky. More recent DNA analyses showed that theory false. Both the Vinton and Noble county bobcats boast the genes of their Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky kin.
Both populations are growing. But Noble County bobcats are reproducing faster and with more genetic purity.“The Noble County population is more successful and more compact,” Prange said. “They are genetically unique and different from all other bobcats.”
She’s not sure why Noble County appears to be better bobcat habitat. But she believes the county’s old strip mines and abundant gas wells have something to do with it.
“There are more (forest) openings and grassy areas in Noble County,” Prange said. “Voles thrive in those open areas and are easy prey for hungry bobcats.”Prange’s theory comes from necropsies performed on road-killed bobcats from all over southern and eastern Ohio. She learns from the dead animals by charting their location, size and DNA — and by examining their stomach contents.“There’s no difference in the two populations when it comes to diet. They all eat deer in the winter. Otherwise it’s rabbits, squirrels and voles,” she said.But, she finds a greater variety of prey in the stomachs of Vinton County ‘cats. Noble County’s eat more voles.
Both populations have a rosy future and bobcat sightings increase yearly throughout eastern and southern Ohio.In 2012, the DNR verified 169 bobcat sightings. In 2011, that number was 136 — up from 106 in 2010. Most observations took place in Noble and adjacent counties. Overall, observers in 31 counties reported verified bobcat sightings.“There are no obvious barriers to expansion and we expect populations to expand into unoccupied habitat if left undisturbed,” Prange noted in a recent presentation.
One concrete example of that expansion surfaced in February 2012 when a female bobcat was killed by a motorist on state Route 315, north of Columbus. Initially, biologists believed the animal had likely escaped a local propagator.Prange performed a necropsy and found the animal was truly wild. She found its stomach empty, meaning it had likely roamed to central Ohio in search of food.