Bobcats are notoriously difficult to catch. When I travelled to Black Rock Forest in upstate New York this winter to help catch and collar bobcats, I tempered my expectations.
The crowd at the Christmas parties preceding my field trip, however, had higher hopes. When conversation turned to winter break plans, my response of: “I am going bobcat-catching” was met with envy and awe. My friends envisaged that I would single-handedly wrestle down the feline predator in a snow-covered ravine. “Ecologists have all the fun,” they complained. “All you do is hang out with animals.”
On my first day at Black Rock Forest, the thermometer reading displayed 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). I am from Australia; we bemoan the unbearable cold and start scarfing up when it drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. As I dressed in the dark, I read the weather warning: serious frostbite was probable after 30 minutes of wind chill.
Outside the lodge, snow-clad trees carpeted the hilly landscape in every direction. Despite being located just over an hour’s drive north of New York City, Black Rock Forest retains many of its native ecosystems. The 3,920-acres of forest is home to myriad animals, from minks to muskrats, black bears to bald eagles.
The flagship species of the forest is the bobcat. Charismatic and compelling, the bobcat can command sufficient public attention to shape development decisions that can then benefit other species living in the same area.
I had travelled to Black Rock Forest to see how their science team was tracking bobcat movement. For the far-ranging bobcat, there was risk that their habitat was being severed by the road system interweaving through the forest. The team was tagging bobcats with GPS-bearing collars to better understand their interaction with the surrounding landscape. This data on where and how the bobcat roamed could support conservation initiatives to improve connectivity. For example, it might persuade developers to construct a ‘wildlife corridor’ (running over or under a busy road) to facilitate wildlife movement.
At the crack of dawn, I drove with the forest’s research scientist, Scott LaPoint, to the first cage-trap. As the small snow buggy skidded precariously across the frozen track, Scott told me about the bobcat footage they had captured on cameras positioned around the forest. “They are definitely around,” Scott remarked, his brown eyes glistening under a thick woolen cap.
From where we parked, there was a 10-minute scramble along a cliffside to the trap. Eagerly, we scoured the snow for fresh paw prints. I had long lost feeling in my toes, but I doubled my pace. The trap was empty.
Bobcats are solitary animals that occupy expansive territories. They are also incredibly clever. As we reset the trap, Scott and I discussed 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 how to pique a bobcat’s interest. For that, we had to deploy a carefully calculated arsenal of visual, olfactory and food enticements.
“The only thing that we can bait a bobcat with is its own curiosity,” Scott said.
To capture a bobcat’s eye from afar, we dangled a stream of bright feathers from a tall branch overhanging the cage. Next, Scott handed me an unlabeled bottle of semi-frozen liquid, and I shook it with such vigor that thick brown liquid splashed across my hands. “That’s bobcat urine,” Scott informed me.
I squirted urine on a nearby branch. This was the Chanel No. 5 of the bobcat world, and our hope was any individual that caught a whiff would be compelled to skulk over and investigate.
At the base of the cage, we smeared a concoction of lures from little tubs bearing names like ‘Cat Fantasy’ and ‘Mating Call’. The smell made my eyes water. Although I employed a deft stick-smearing technique, enough gooey paste got caught under my fingernails that even a week later, I caught occasional wafts of rank and rancid.
Inside the cage, we hung up beaver meat and adorned the floor with pigeon feathers. As finishing garnish to this bobcat utopia, we sprinkled powdered silver vine – a plant of intense attraction for many members of the cat family.
One by one, we visited the other 17 traps scattered across the forest. The more remote traps required over 20 minutes of uphill hiking through loose snow to reach. All traps were empty.
The entire process, of checking and resetting each trap, took well over 8 hours. The team repeated the process each day, over four months. This was Scott’s third year of trapping.
Earlier when we were driving out, I had asked Scott, “So, how many bobcats have you caught overall?” Scott’s reply was terse and unapologetic: “Two.”
It is not uncommon for ecologists, especially those studying elusive animals, to spend months, potentially years, without ever encountering their focus species first-hand. Not for a second would Scott or I begrudge plucking feathers from dead pigeons or being splattered with bobcat urine. However, it is certainly not everyone’s idea of fun.
Alice Yan is an environmental lawyer and Fulbright scholar in Columbia University’s Department of Ecology Evolution and Environmental Biology. Her research focuses on ecological conservation, ecosystem dynamics and predator-prey relationships.