RI Bobcat Tracking Program Nears End

(In a healthy environment, New England cottontails form a significant part of the prey base for bobcats and other predators. Wildlife scientists are studying bobcats’ population, distribution, and home range sizes in Rhode Island. The state’s Department of Environmental Management monitors the cats’ potential impacts on cottontails.)

By Jackie Roman, Valley Breeze and Observer

SMITHFIELD – With only one full season left in a five-year effort to trap and track bobcats, researchers at the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management are hoping to gain as much data, and public assistance, as possible.

bobcat and trap

Camera set up in wooded area of Rhode Island captured a photograph of a bobcat standing next to a live trap. Both camera and trap are monitored by URI research associate Amy Gottfried Mayer.

The program, funded by DEM through a donation from the Pittman–Robertson Wildlife Restoration Program, began in 2014 as Rhode Island residents began to notice an uptick in the number of large spotted felines slinking around the suburbs.

But bobcats are nothing new in the state, and, according to research assistant T.J. McGreevy, “There’s been reported sightings of bobcats in Rhode Island since the 1940s.”

However, before URI and DEM began their partnership, there was no recorded data on bobcat population size, distribution pattern, and home range size. Researchers believe obtaining this information will help provide a fuller picture of the ecosystem in Rhode Island.

“They are a species of great conservation need in Rhode Island,” said McGreevy. Plus, added the researcher, “It’s important to know what your predators are doing.”

Since bobcats eat mostly small prey, like rabbits, birds, and squirrels, they could have a significant impact on local wildlife if the population swells. That’s why alongside the bobcat tracking program, the DEM has also tracked two kinds of cottontail rabbits, the New England cottontail and the eastern cottontail.

Since the New England cottontail has only been recorded recently in four locations in the state, DEM is closely monitoring any potential impact the bobcat population may have on its shrinking population.

To evaluate whether or not the bobcat population is threatened, or perhaps thriving too much, researchers have been setting up traps across Rhode Island.

URI research associate Amy Gottfried Mayer is in charge of the day-to-day monitoring of 11 traps when the project is in season and closely monitors the bobcat movements.

bobcat wearing radio-collar

Bobcat captured in February 2017 was fitted with GPS collar to track his movements. Image taken by trail camera set up by URI research associate Amy Mayer.

“I feel like what we’re doing is interesting and important,” said Mayer. “It’s fun to share this project.”

Most of the traps Mayer checks are in southern Rhode Island, but bobcats aren’t limited to that region.

“They use pretty much every type of habitat,” she said.

There have been reported sightings of bobcats in Scituate and Smithfield in the past two years. Bobcats have been spotted in every municipality except Providence.

DEM wildlife biologist Charlie Brown captured the first bobcat in the program back in November of 2015 and fitted the cat, a male, with a GPS collar allowing researchers to monitor its movements and collect data.

Unfortunately, that bobcat was hit by a car in February 2016.

“There’s human threats,” McGreevy said, but Rhode Island has far fewer bobcat roadkills than other states.

For instance, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records between 20 and 30 bobcat roadkills annually.

In comparison, Brown has only recorded six bobcat roadkills in the past two years.

That suggests “We don’t have too high an abundance of bobcat,” McGreevy said.

Following the death of its first subject, the program captured two other bobcats, an older male in Westerly and a young female in Charlestown.

If residents spot a bobcat, they are encouraged to take a photo and email it to Brown at charles.brown@dem.ri.gov.