[Reprinted from original]
Original Title: Think you saw a bobcat in Hartford? You may have as they’re ‘living high on the hog’ in CT’s urban areas, DEEP research shows
If you live in Hartford and see what looks like a big house cat with its tail chopped off, it might be a bobcat.
The Connecticut Bobcat Project (Ctbobcatproject.weebly.com), led by Jason Hawley, a wildlife biologist for the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (Portal.ct.gov), shows through GPS collars that the big cats are increasingly moving to cities as the population expands.
Two of DEEP’s tracked bobcats were found to have moved to Hartford, less than half a mile from Saint Francis Hospital.
“They’re thriving in these areas,” he said. “They find these little pockets of habitat and do quite well,” and having kittens that survive.
In other words, Connecticut’s estimated 1,200 to 2,000 bobcats are choosing to be closer to people.
The research project focused on apex predators — or those at the top of the food chain — uses GPS collars to track the animals and is part of a larger project at the University of Connecticut.
Over the course of the study, Hawley’s team tagged 250-275 bobcats and put GPS collars on about 150 of the animals.
Hawley said the bobcat portion of the project is about to wrap up after four years, and the discoveries about the bobcats’ movements have been significant, including that they are expanding to urban areas.
UConn researchers developed a model 10 years ago for tracking apex feline predators in the wild, including mountain lions. The Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at UConn later accepted DEEP into the grant-funded research to track bobcats, the only wild cats indigenous to Connecticut.
Hawley, the lead biologist for DEEP’s furbearer and black bear program, is conducting the research with the help of other DEEP staff as part of his PhD studies at UConn.
Hawley, called the undertaking with the apex predators, “a big group effort.”
The bobcat project involved DEEP staff putting GPS collars on bobcats in rural, medium-density and high-density habitats.
“We want to look at how bobcats are moving, interacting, choosing prey,” in settings from rural to city, Hawley said.
What they’ve found is that city habitats with humans work out nicely for bobcats. Bobcats like to ambush their prey and hedgerows, as well as other city landscapes, provide the right conditions for hiding and pouncing.
That kind of habitat is also good for attracting prey for bobcats — squirrels, opossum, raccoons, rats and woodchucks. The hypothesis is that bobcats are doing well in highly developed areas because that prey is abundant, Hawley said.
“Bobcats are living high on the hog in these areas,” Hawley said.
Bobcats are territorial, meaning they don’t overlap territory and they’re constantly moving on the range — a “huge” range, Hawley said.
A healthy bobcat is really no threat to humans, he said. In 17 years at DEEP, he’s seen four or five instances of people getting scratched up by the cats. But in all those cases, the bobcats were found to be rabid. An unhealthy bobcat looks emaciated, has repetitive behaviors and looks unstable, he said.
Hawley said that bobcats are providing a “service” in the city by eating nuisance animals such as rats and raccoons. The activity of humans has come to be natural for bobcats, he said.
While humans don’t have to fear healthy bobcats, they will kill cats, Hawley said. They also eat fawns.
He said bobcats are important to the ecosystem because, “It’s always important to have a top predator in your ecosystem.”
The information/data gathered on bobcats will be used for conservation, management, public education and habitat needed to exist and to control diseases. Some 30 years ago, bobcats were a species of concern that was protected in Connecticut during the early 1970s, but the population has rebounded.
Thomas Meyer, an engineer, global positioning expert and UConn professor who plays a key role in the research project, said wildlife has been tracked for decades using GPS.
They are using the current research — going on for about 10 years now — as a way for students to learn about research and statistics. The predator/prey relationship is the underpinning for everything, he said.
In well-known examples, Meyer said, when the population of mountain lions, wolves and bears population decreased in Yellowstone, the deer, antelope, elk and other similar animal populations “exploded” and that “overburdened the forests” leading the ecosystem to collapse.
“People began to catch on that you need these apex predators,” Meyer said. “Everybody lives together so we have as healthy an ecosystem as possible.”
As part of the project, researchers are also tracking the movement of mountain lions out west. At the moment, experts say there are no mountain lions in Connecticut. Although the mountain lion and bobcat research is separate, there are similarities in that they move similarly, the experts said.
While the mountain lion work being done in Wyoming, Colorado and Washington state is separate, the work will be shared because, although the animals are different, they have similar movement patterns.
The mountain lion study tells researchers how the predators spend time and where they go, Meyer said, noting it’s a lot like tracking a human on a cell phone. If a human is tracked going to the same place every day, it’s assumed they probably work there.
The research project at UConn is being done in partnership with Mark Elbroch of Panthera Inc., a leading authority on big cats.
Elbroch’s team safely captures and tranquilizes the mountain lions to put a GPS collar on the animal. The collars are “minimally invasive,” and don’t bother the mountain lions in the slightest, as they could get them off if they really wanted.
Meyer reiterated there is no mountain lion population in Connecticut, although the debate among residents continues because of reported sightings.
Meyer said it is possible for mountain lions to travel here from faraway states — and that has happened — but if the animals lived here, we would see their prey, scat and there would be more sightings.
“If there was a breeding population we would know,” he said.
Mountain lions are difficult to study any other way than through GPS monitoring because they’re solitary, Meyer said.
They are also difficult to observe because they live in remote places. The big cats can smell and hear something coming before they are seen, so they are only seen when they want to be, he said.
The research using GPS strives to determine how mountain lions behave when they’re not being observed, including how many hours they spend in motion and how many they sleep.
“Gaining an understanding of them is the only way to develop management strategies,” Meyer said. “Without our apex predators, the ecosystem can’t function properly.