Bobcats in Kentucky
by Laura Palmer Wildlife Biologist, KDFWR.
Scarce in Kentucky in the 1970s, bobcats (Lynx rufus) have made an impressive comeback and now occur in every county. Historically, bobcats occurred throughout the contiguous United States, southern Canada, and to central Mexico. Many bobcat popu- lations declined or became extirpated by the twen- tieth century, especially in the Midwest, due to intensive land clearing for agriculture and persecu- tion by humans. Bobcats have naturally rebounded and recolonized their former range except for Delaware, and have expanded further north in some areas. Bobcats are found in most any habitat type from tropical to boreal forests, conifer forests, bot- tomland hardwoods, and deserts.
Considering their abundance now in many ar- eas, it is surprising that bobcats are seldom seen. Their mottled coats allow them to blend in with grasses and leaves of the forest floor, going unno- ticed as they slip through the shadows and tree lines. They have an uncanny ability to lie low and silently hidden in a brush pile, blackberry patch, or hollowed out tree when people are near. Spooking a bobcat from long grass beside a gravel road guar- antees an adrenaline rush to a passing hiker. Wide- spread use of trail cameras has made many landowners aware of bobcats on their properties. While camera position and long legs relative to body size sometimes make bobcats appear large in pho- tos, female bobcats average only around 14 pounds and males average 22 pounds. An occasional male reaches nearly 30 pounds.
The coat color of bobcats varies from tan to reddish brown or gray interspersed with black spots or rosettes. The belly fur is white with black spots; bellies with bright white fur and distinct black spots are of higher value on the fur market. The inner legs are marked with bold black bars, and conspic- uous white spots occur on the backs of the ears. Their striking appearance leads many a fur trapper or predator hunter to get at least one bobcat hide tanned for display. The ultra soft fur is used for coats and hats in the fashion industry. Market prices have declined from four years ago, when bobcat pelts sold by trappers averaged one hundred dollars each. The North American Fur Auction reported an average price of twenty dollars each for eastern bobcats last season. Western bobcats brought a much higher average of over four hundred dollars each because of their higher quality belly fur. The fur market forecasts a comeback and increasing prices this season, so bobcats will likely bring more this year on the fur market. Bobcats also bring good value on the taxidermy market, and trappers may sell a prime bobcat for a few hun- dred dollars.
Bobcats breed in late winter and give birth two months later to one to four kittens; commonly two. Kitten and juvenile mortality can be high due to star- vation and is dependent on prey abundance. Kittens are also prey to hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, and domestic dogs. Most bobcats don’t survive past four years old. The oldest bobcat recorded in Kentucky was 16 years old; the oldest in the U.S. was 23 years old in New Mexico. Dispersal timing is variable; some juveniles stay with the mother until she begins breeding, and others stick around until the next litter is born. Dispersal distances are commonly around twenty miles, although on occasion bobcats move farther. A study animal with a tracking collar from Taylor County, KY was picked up on a trail camera south of Frankfort in southern Franklin County, over 70 miles straight-line distance. A female bobcat tagged in New Jersey was found 108 miles away in Pennsyl- vania. These long-range dispersal events enable the bobcat to find un-occupied territories or areas of greater prey abundance. The ability to disperse many miles also allowed the species to naturally return to its former range unassisted by reintroduction programs. Bobcats are good swimmers and have been observed crossing rivers, lakes, and even navigating the Intracoastal waterway in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina. Bobcat home ranges are highly variable from one to several square miles, depending on gender, season, habitat quality, prey abun- dance, and fragmentation. Males’ larger home ranges may overlap with one or more females’ ranges, as males breed with multiple females. Bobcats mark the boundaries of their territories with feces, urine, gland secretions, and by tree scratching to warn other bobcats away.
Bobcats prey upon mice, rats, voles, rabbits, squirrels, muskrats, opossum, beaver, birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, deer, and eggs. They also scav- enge deer carcasses that have been hit by cars or left by hunters. Diversity of prey items in the diet often depends on prey abundance. Bobcats stalk and ambush their prey. It may take several minutes to move just a couple of feet when stalking. In a burst of speed, a bobcat will pounce on prey and grasp it with sharp canines and claws. Sometimes prey is cached for a later meal and is covered with leaves, grass, or pine needles.
The impact of bobcat predation on other animals has not been measured in Kentucky. These types of studies are very site specific, challenging to con- duct, and expensive. Predation rates may depend on habitat quality and avail- ability, the amount of nesting and resting cover, small mammal abundance, composition of predator communities, and densities of competing predators. These correlations may change seasonally and annually depending on mast crop, weather patterns, harvest, and a variety of complex interactions. Studies have shown that creating habitat and implementing habitat management prac- tices to create optimum foraging opportunities and cover is likely more effective than trying to employ predator control practices with uncertain outcomes.
The bobcat is undoubtedly a fascinating and valuable furbearer. Those in- terested in pursuing a bobcat through hunting or trapping can check the KD- FWR website for seasons, bag limits, and telechecking requirements. The Department is currently collecting a lower canine from harvested bobcats as part of a study. If you are interested in donating a tooth sample, please contact to request a sample envelope and instructions. Age results are provided to those who donate teeth.