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Why California Should Ban Bobcat Trapping

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A bobcat in the San Emigdio Mountains | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

With Louis Sahagun's devastating article this weekend in the Los Angeles Times, the outside world learned what those of us in Joshua Tree have known for some time: our bobcats are being trapped and killed for the profit of a very few people. But what the Times article didn't say was that bobcat trapping in California as a whole is an archaic practice based on bad science, which should have been made illegal long ago.

Sahagun provides the basics of a controversy that has roiled the little hamlet of Joshua Tree, where I live. My friend Tom O'Key found a bobcat trap on his land, placed there by trapper Nathan Brock, an active-duty Marine stationed at Twentynine Palms. O'Key publicized his find, and the town erupted.

Some locals had known about bobcat trapping for a long time. Local journalist Steve Brown had written extensively about the issue in his publication The Sun Runner, including the chilling revelation that trappers monitor social media for wildlife lovers' bobcat photos to determine where to set their traps. (Which is why I'm not telling you precisely where the bobcat photo at the top of this article was taken.)

Despite Brown's work, O'Key's discovery shocked more than a few locals. Some of my neighbors are getting organized to fight the trappers. Many were surprised to learn that bobcat trapping is even legal. But not only is it legal, it is very nearly unregulated. There is a trapping season from November 24 through January 31, and you must have a trapper's license to take cats legally during that season. But once you've jumped that low hurdle, you can pretty much denude the landscape of bobcats. As long as you set your traps in season, you can kill as many bobcats as you want. The only limit is that once trappers kill 14,400 bobcats in the state, the season closes. That's an awfully high bar.

There's a longer season for bobcat hunting, and it's a problematic practice as well, but it's much harder to hunt a bobcat than to trap one. Most bobcats "harvested" in California are caught by trappers.

Since Prop 4 passed in 1998, it's illegal to trap any wild animal in California using a leghold or similar trap. Bobcat trappers here tend to use cage traps, as shown in this video:

Barstow resident Mercer Lawing is the manufacturer of a particularly sophisticated cage trap for bobcats, and is one of the Morongo Basin trappers quoted in Sahagun's piece. (He's the one that said the people who trap and kill bobcats love them more than those of us who want them alive and doing their job controlling rodent populations in our state's wildlands.) You can see the results of California bobcat traping in photos on Lawing's Facebook page. It isn't pretty. [Update: Lawing seems to have taken his Facebook page down, but you can still see the distressing photos of giant pelt collections on his main site.]

As long as the total haul people like Brock and Lawing take each year doesn't approach 14,400, though, the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) maintains that the trapping season isn't hurting our bobcats. 14,400 is an oddly precise number, so it's natural to assume there's some science behind it. And there is: it's one fifth of California's bobcat population when that population was last estimated -- in the late 1970s.

Do the math: that's more than thirty years ago.

Bobcats are trapped for their pelts. Trappers will sometimes make efforts to sell other parts of the cats, shipping skulls and skeletons to scientific supply houses and such. But it's the pelts that drive the practice. Brock, the trapper that illegally placed his trap on Tom O'Key's land, told Louis Sahagun that a really good pelt can fetch $600 these days. In the last couple of years, pelts have fetched more than $1,000 at auction.

That wasn't always the case. Bobcat pelts were once considered a low-value fur. But when most countries signed on to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in the 1970s, higher-value spotted cat furs such as jaguar, leopard, and ocelot suddenly got a whole lot harder to sell internationally.

Bobcats weren't considered rare or endangered, so fur buyers who had been using other spotted cats started eyeing bobcats as fodder for their products. The bobcat's species, Lynx rufus, is listed under Appendix II of CITES, which includes species that may become endangered if their trade isn't regulated. Regulation of trade in Appendix II species is the responsibility of the exporter, so the U.S. became responsible for regulating export of bobcat pelts when bobcats were added to Appendix II in the mid-1970s.

As I said above, the Federal government established the current limit of 14,400 California bobcats killed per year in the late 1970s, based on studies whose authority was strongly challenged. Challenged in court, in fact: in 1979, the group Defenders of Wildlife sued to block export of bobcats from California, charging that the limit was based on faulty population estimates and assumptions about how quickly bobcats replenish their population after being hunted or trapped.

Defenders of Wildlife prevailed in court: a judge ordered a halt to export of bobcat pelts from California in 1982, and said that freeze could be lifted only when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) came up with scientifically accurate estimates of California's bobcat population and its ability to absorb losses to trapping and hunting. FWS never provided that estimate, and yet the court order banning bobcat trapping was lifted in December 1982 when changes to the Endangered Species Act made the case legally moot.

Instead of using actual data, the state's Department of Fish and Game -- now renamed the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) -- has used that spurious 14,400-bobcat limit for the three decades since it was completely dismantled in a court of law.

Let's say that again: a court agreed that the bobcat quota for California was based on bad science back in 1982, and demanded that FWS provide data for bobcat hunt management that was actually scientifically valid. It never got that data, but thirty years later we're still using the same quota.

That's laughably bad practice for any wildlife management policy.

For managing a top-level predator, it's incredibly destructive.

Bobcats are less picky in their eating habits than some of their relatives like the lynx, but for the most part they eat rabbits and rodents. Like other predators, they act as a regulator on their prey populations. Without predators to keep them in check, prey populations explode.

Here's an example of how removing predators can have really bad effects. 2002 was a dry year in Joshua Tree, and scientists in the National Park here noticed that a number of Joshua trees were dying. On examination, they found that small mammals such as black-tailed jackrabbits and antelope ground squirrels were stripping the bark from Joshua trees to get at the moist tissue beneath, killing the trees in their quest for water. Such dry years are expected to increase in number and severity as the climate warms. Bobcats eat ground squirrels and jackrabbits. They're thus one of the Joshua tree's most important allies in a warming world.

If our bobcat management policy is based on 30-year-old data that a court of law found faulty back then, how sure can we be the trees will still have those allies when they need them?

Bobcat habitat has been steadily altered in the state of California since that deeply flawed number was pulled out of the air. Bobcats live throughout the state, and throughout the state forests have been cut down, desert habitat paved over for suburbs, roads built and the number of speeding drivers increased. If the number had any validity 30 years ago -- and it likely did not -- it's long since obsolete.

And yet because the take of bobcats hasn't approached the DFW's magical "14,400 dead cats" level, the agency maintains bobcats are doing just fine. Even though for more than a generation, they couldn't be bothered to find out how many cats the state actually has.

The last time you took a long road trip, did you assume you had enough gas because you checked the gas gauge a couple days ago? No one would do that. But that's how DFW manages California's bobcat population: letting the "supply" of bobcats go uncounted for more than three decades as we burn through a thousand or more each year. In the 2011-2012 season, DFW reports an estimated 1,813 bobcats killed in California. That number likely rose in the 2012-2013 season.

Bobcat trapping is bad science. It's inhumane. It undermines our valuable tourism economy in much of California. People come here to see wildlife, not pelts.

It's time California banned this ludicrous, unsupportable practice. DFW should abide by the spirit of the court decision handed down in 1982 that ordered the trap season stopped until we have some real science about bobcat numbers in California. It's time for California's bobcat trapping season to become an embarrassing footnote to California's history.

If DFW won't do that, perhaps our new Democratic supermajority in Sacramento will do it for them. Whether by agency fiat or getting a new law passed, we need to ban bobcat trapping in California, and we need to do it now.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. He writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here and follow him on Twitter.

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