Bobcats were supposedly extirpated from Ohio by 1850, but that may not actually have been the case — especially in the extreme eastern part of the state, particularly Belmont County. “In talking to some real old-timers here, they tell me there have always been bobcats around,” says Bryan Postlethwait. “Just more now.”
A field supervisor for the Division of Wildlife, Postlethwait oversees state wildlife officers in six southeastern counties, and in doing so, he logs a lot of driving time in his 4-wheel-drive pickup truck. “Bobcats certainly aren’t behind every tree,” he says, “but in the last few years, I’ve lost count of the number I’ve seen while driving, both live ’cats and roadkills.”
Bobcats were taken off the state-endangered list in 2014. At the time of delisting, the population in Ohio was about 1,000 individuals, and since that time, the bobcat population has continued to increase in both size and distribution.
The main reason for the growth is that Ohio still has a large amount of ideal yet unfilled bobcat habitat. While the bobcat population is well established in southeastern and southern Ohio, bobcats continue to expand and repopulate areas in the northeastern and western parts of the state. In addition, bobcats from neighboring states are augmenting the Ohio population.
Traci Keller, wildlife care assistant manager at Lake Metroparks Wildlife Center, located east of Cleveland in Lake County, knows bobcats well. The rehabilitation center has worked with half a dozen bobcats over the past seven years.
“We are the only wildlife rehab facility in Ohio that works with bobcats, which we began doing in 2013,” says Keller. “Those first two cats, both females, were radio-collared prior to release as part of a study with the Division of Wildlife. We were able to track them for a year, and during that time, both had a litter of kittens. We also know through radio-telemetry data that one of the cats even swam the Muskingum River.”
The last two cats that the center worked with — a male and female — were raised and then released back to the wild just this past May. I was fortunate to tag along that day to take the photos for this story. The two were found orphaned as 8-week-old kittens last fall in Belmont County. “They weighed just 2 pounds each when we received them and they definitely did not want anything to do with people — which is a good thing,” Keller says. “We began feeding them formula, which they lapped, then eventually added meat to their diet.”
The bobcats were fed and cared for in a way that limited their exposure to humans. “We use specialized outdoor caging facilities with feeding chutes, and that helps us safely care for the cats with minimum human contact,” Keller says. “In fact, to keep them as wild as possible, we were not in direct contact with these last two bobcats for six months prior to their release.”
The large cage where the cats were reared was outfitted with cameras so that caregivers could keep an eye on them. There was also a webcam on the center’s website that allowed the public to check on them, too.
The cats were released on a remote state wildlife area in Belmont County, an ideal habitat of dense forest with plenty of prey species and water nearby. They were not radio-collared but did have a microchip inserted beneath the skin at the base of the neck, so if ever found again, they can be individually identified.
“It gave me goose bumps to watch them leave their transport crates and take their first steps back into the wild as adults,” Keller says. “After all our work with them over the past year, being able to return a pair of elusive apex predators back into the Ohio bobcat population is very exciting and rewarding.”
W.H. “Chip” Gross is Ohio Cooperative Living’s outdoors editor and a member of Consolidated Cooperative.