By Daymond Steer
The Conway Daily Sun
Should there be a modest bobcat hunt in New Hampshire? Both biologists and trappers say there are plenty of bobcats to support a limited season, but animal rights activists say a hunt would be unnecessary and cruel.
Last month, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission voted to move forward with the creation of a limited bobcat hunt that could involve a lottery-type system for 50 licenses. The number of licenses and other details are subject to change. But the rules under consideration would allow sportspeople to take bobcats by hunting or trapping. Bobcat hunting/trapping has been banned in New Hampshire since 1989 but surrounding states have seasons.
"It would be much like the moose lottery," said David Patch, Carroll County's Fish and Game commissioner, who noted there is a bobcat season in all the surrounding states. "Nobody is going to get more than one bobcat."
Fish and Game is holding two biennial public hearings in December that involve general concerns about Fish and Game. The first meeting is Dec. 9 in Concord and the second is Dec. 17 in Lancaster.The proposed bobcat hunt will likely be brought up by members of the public.
Public hearings dedicated to the bobcat hunt have yet to be scheduled but are likely to occur next year. Patch said he voted in favor of moving the rule forward last month so public input coan be gathered. The vote was 7-3.
"My job is to listen to my constituents and take their concerns to Concord," said Patch, adding he will keep an open mind up to the conclusion of the public process.
The rule-making process begins with a proposal from the department divisions and the commission. Then a public comment period lasts about a month. After reviewing public comments, the commission may amend the proposal. The final proposal is sent to a joint committee of state senators and representatives. After that, a proposed rule is sent back to the Fish and Game director for signature. This process takes between six to nine months.
If approved as now envisioned, bobcat trapping would take place in December and hunting season in January.
Bobcats reach about 35 pounds and 49 inches in length. Their coat can range between yellow brown and gray. Their coat has spots and streaks. Bobcats' ears are tufted. They have stubby tails, hence the name. A study of bobcats, conducted between 1951 and 1962, shows bobcats eat rabbits, deer, hares, squirrels, voles, shrews, porcupines and birds.
Fish and Game says there are somewhere between 1,400 and 2,200 bobcats in New Hampshire and that the population has rebounded after the ban went into effect. Based on research conducted with the University of New Hampshire, Fish and Game believes the bobcat population could support a harvest of 77 cats per year.
Even if 50 licenses were to be awarded, that doesn't mean 50 cats will be killed, as some hunters and trappers will surely come up empty-handed, Patch said.
There were bounties for bobcats, on again, off again, in New Hampshire from 1809 to 1973. Bounties would range from $1 per bobcat from 1832-95 to up to $20 from 1929 through 1973.
New Hampshire Trappers Association President Paul DeBow of Plymouth agrees there is a good number of bobcats in the state. "We have bobcats pouring out of our woods," said DeBow.
The association released this statement:
"The N.H. Trappers Association supports the NH Fish and Game Department's proposed bobcat season as it is based on sound biological principles. Recent scientific studies by the University of N.H. have shown that the bobcat population in N.H. is healthy enough to sustain an annual harvest. NHTA believes that the sportsmen and woman of the Granite State should be able to make use of wildlife resources, and we turn to Fish and Game to continue its commitment in providing access and sound management of those resources."
A Fish and Game study of bobcat mortality from 2007-14 shows the leading cause of bobcat mortality is moter vehicle accidents. In 2012, nearly 40 bobcats were killed by cars. In 2013, that number was 30. Back in 2007, fewer than 10 bobcats were killed by cars and slightly more were killed in traps.
Patch said Fish and Game is trying to craft a fair compromise between those who believe the animals shouldn't be hunted and those who say they can.
Lindsay Hamrick of the Humane Society of the United States is following the issue closely. Her organization opposes lifting the ban. She said the commission may approve more specific language at a meeting (not a public hearing) on Dec. 9.
"From there, the rules outlining a season will be made public and the public hearing/public comment period will be triggered," said Hamrick.
"They have to wait at least 20 days once the rules are published to schedule a hearing so we are probably looking at early or mid January."
Hamrick said Fish and Game has been at a deficit for years. She said a requirement of sitting on the 11-member Fish and Game Commission is an active hunting, fishing or trapping license for the last five years. She said there have been moves in the legislature to allow for a 12th commissioner with a conservation or biology background but not necessarily a sporting license. These commissioners are appointed by the governor.
Unsurprisingly, longtime animal rights activist Laura Slitt of Bartlett opposes the proposal. According to Slitt, there aren't that many bobcats in New Hampshire and that their numbers are self- regulating and will not overpopulate.
"The best argument against the bobcat hunt is that there is no good reason to do so," said Slitt. "The director of the N.H. Fish and Game Department stated the reason for doing it is to provide opportunities to hunters and trappers, a minute portion of N.H. citizens. That is not a good enough reason to kill a valuable predator that we need more of and not less."
She said predators help reduce problems with parasitic diseases.
Non-profits Voices of Wildlife opposes the hunt for similar reasons.
"Many Granite Staters said they would be thrilled to be able to see a bobcat," said Helen Tam-Semmens of Stoddard. "Over 10,000 Granite Staters have signed the petition to Save the Bobcat in N.H. and oppose to killing bobcats."
Patch said of all the states in the Northeast, New Hampshire has done the most research on bobcats.
Anyone trying to find out if they have any bobcats nearby would be advised to search for tracks, say UNH's bobcat research website (tinyurl.com/mgcs25t).
The rear pad of a bobcat's paw is M-shaped, while a coyote paw's rear pad resembles and upside-down "Y."
A bobcat siting map on the UNH website shows bobcats have been spotted all over the state since 1990. The most range from Nashua to Concord. There were 411 sightings from 2010-12. There were also sightings in Madison, Tamworth and Bartlett. Sightings north of Conway tended to be on the western side of the state and thin out in the far north.
Dwight Pennell, 61, of Tuftonboro, is one of the Trapping Association's Directors from Carroll County. The other is his wife, Bonnie. Dwight has been trapping since he was 14 years old. He says the local bobcats' coat has less spots than the western bobcats. People generally either mount the trophies or make wall rugs.
An Internet search shows pelts also are made into hats and vests.
When caught in coyote traps, bobcats can be released unharmed. However, they would be mortally wounded if taken in tree traps designed for fishers. When that happens, the bobcat's carcass has to be turned over to New Hampshire Fish and Game.
"We can't keep bobcats right now," said Pennell.
Releasing a bobcat takes a little patience. Coyotes and foxes can only bite, but bobcats can bite and scratch with sharp claws. So, says Pennell, one has to wait till a bobcat gets tired before going to release them.
"I'd rather releases a bobcat any day than let a raccoon go," said Pennell adding that raccoons are like little bears with a lot of endurance.
Trappers use .22-caliber firearms to dispatch coyotes with a shot to the head. Pennell said trappers would do the same for bobcats if a season were legalized.
Contrary to popular belief, leg traps don't break the animals' legs, and trapped animals don't attempt to chew their legs off, but they may bite at the trap. The traps merely restrain the animal. Generally, traps must be checked every 24 hours. It would take 48 hours for an animal to lose circulation or feeling in their leg. In fact, leg traps are designed with offset jaws to prevent loss of circulation, he said.
"Every trapper I know has been caught several times, and they still have all their hands and fingers," said Pennell.