Bobcats, coyotes and other wildlife species are on the rise by Matt Kanner

The Seacoast has long taken pride in its native bobcat population. The University of New Hampshire’s athletic teams are called the Wildcats, and Oyster River High School’s teams are called the Bobcats.  But, despite our affection for the feral felines, humans nearly drove them out of the region. As recently as the mid 1980s, there were as few as 100 to 150 bobcats in all of New Hampshire. The species’ decline was dramatic enough to spur state officials to ban bobcat hunting in 1989.  Still, between 1990 and 2004, only 90 bobcat sightings were reported statewide, according to researcher John Litvaitis, a professor of natural resources and the environment at UNH.  That’s just six sightings per year.  That’s why researchers were so surprised by the results of a recent bobcat study conducted by UNH and the N.H. Fish and Game Department. As part of the four-year project, 100 volunteers were asked to set up motion-activated cameras and report bobcat sightings. Within the first two weeks, they got 200 phone calls, Litvaitis said.  The overwhelming response reflects not only the recent success of bobcats in the area, but also people’s fascination with these normally reclusive cats. It’s an appeal Litvaitis struggles to put into words.  “I can only reflect on my own admiration for them,” he said. “The mystique of a cat is there. It’s an animal that really does exemplify something wild about our environment.”  Bobcats aren’t the only wildlife species experiencing a resurgence in New Hampshire. Other species that have rebounded include coyotes, bald eagles, wild turkeys, and deer. Some experts wonder if larger predators like wolves and cougars might one day return to the region.

Description: CS_bobcat_byDianeLoweAn adult male bobcat (photo by Diane Lowe)

Rapid rebound
To understand why bobcats have resurged in recent years, you first have to understand what caused their demise several decades ago. One factor was that the population of New England cottontails, a favorite prey species, began to decline. Another was that eastern coyote numbers increased, creating additional competition for food. Plus, there was a significant uptick in bobcat hunting in the 1970s. “They were the unlucky awardee of a new fashion statement, in that their fur became very commercially valuable,” Litvaitis said. “So, with declining prey, a new competitor, and high demand, their populations were in decline.”

The ban on bobcat hunting took care of the demand issue. Another reason for the bobcat rebound involves an entirely different species: the wild turkey.  Just four decades ago, there were no wild turkeys in New Hampshire. In 1975, N.H. Fish and Game reintroduced the species, releasing 25 turkeys in Walpole. Turkey numbers exploded in the 1980s and ’90s. Today, there are an estimated 40,000 wild turkeys statewide.  The new food source has helped bobcats recover. New Hampshire is now home to somewhere between 800 and 1,200 bobcats, which can weigh up to 40 pounds. And they’ve been showing up in unexpected places around the southeastern part of the state. They’ve even been spotted staking out backyard birdfeeders.  “They’re stalking the squirrels, in particular, and occasionally the turkeys that go to birdfeeders,” Litvaitis said.  Litvaitis said human awareness and conservation efforts have helped animals like bobcats recover. “But I think the animals deserve some credit, too,” he said. He pointed to the bald eagle, which was in danger of going extinct a few decades ago. Today, bald eagles are a fairly common sight. 

The 2015 Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey took place across the country on Jan. 10. The results won’t be compiled for a couple of weeks, but strong numbers were expected.Chris Martin of New Hampshire Audubon leads the eagle count around Great Bay. In 1980, only two birds were tallied in the count. The last few surveys have resulted in between 60 and 70 sightings each year, he said.  Why the rapid rebound? In the 1960s and ’70s, DDT was used heavily as a pesticide. The chemical inhibited some raptors’ ability to lay thick-shelled eggs. The thin and brittle shells would crack while incubating and the chicks would not hatch. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in the early 1970s. “By getting rid of that problem, the birds did a lot of the rest,” Martin said. “They just began to breed again, and they’ve been reclaiming different areas that they were in 100 years ago.”

Description: CS_BaldEagle_byDirk-van-der-MerweAn adult bald eagle (photo by Dirk van der Merwe)

Sharing space
Litvaitis estimates there is about one bobcat per 10 square miles in New Hampshire. That’s not a dense enough population to have a noticeable impact on the state’s ecology, or to cause many problems for humans.  But that’s not the case with all species. There are roughly 5,000 coyotes in New Hampshire, and they’re showing up all over the place — even in downtown Portsmouth.

“Coyotes can live anywhere,” said wild canid ecologist Christine Schadler. New Hampshire has an open hunting season on coyotes year-round. It sounds counterintuitive, but harvesting lots of coyotes leads to larger and denser populations.  “Heavy hunting destabilizes the structure of the pack, and when the social structure breaks down, more females tend to breed,” Schadler said. “And they breed at a younger age, and they have larger litters.”The phenomenon is called “responsive reproduction,” and coyotes are good at it.  That’s not necessarily a good thing. Diseases like rabies, mange, and Lyme disease spread more quickly through denser populations, and coyotes’ pervasiveness makes them more likely to encounter humans.  Schadler works with Project Coyote, a North American coalition that promotes conservation and coexistence between people and coyotes. She has been giving presentations about the animals at local libraries. “The more coyotes there are, the more likely it is coyotes will interface with humans. Humans largely do not understand the animal, so they react poorly,” she said. “So, ultimately, a lot of coyotes end up dying needlessly.”  For instance, although coyotes primarily prey on rodents, they also scavenge roadkill along highways, and that makes them vulnerable to motor-vehicle traffic.  Another frequent victim of motor-vehicle collisions is deer. Prior to the mid 1980s, harsh winters and poor hunting management led New Hampshire’s white-tailed deer population to decline. In 1983, the state recorded its lowest deer harvest in history, with 3,280 animals taken.

N.H. Fish and Game began restricting the harvest of does in the 1980s. In 2013, hunters took 12,540 deer, the fourth-highest total in state history.  That’s due not only to hunting management and milder winters, but to deer’s ability to thrive in suburban habitat. In more densely populated areas like the Seacoast, deer are more likely to get hit by cars. They can also irk people by eating ornamental plants and spreading Lyme disease. “The biggest issue is the social carrying capacity, the number of deer that people want around,” said Daniel Bergeron, deer project leader at N.H. Fish and Game. “You get some of those areas where deer are at levels that they’re starting to become a nuisance to people, although biologically they could probably be sustained.”  Both bobcats and coyotes hunt deer, but not in large enough numbers to impact the population. Fish and Game is aiming to reduce the Seacoast’s deer population by managing the harvest of reproducing does.  Meanwhile, Schadler advises people who see coyotes to yell at them and scare them away. It’s important, she said, that they don’t get too comfortable around humans.

Description: CS_coyote3_courtesyChristineSchadler_BESTONEAn eastern coyote (photo courtesy of Christine Schadler)

Bigger beasts?
The thriving coyote population has led some to wonder about the species’ larger relatives: Could wolves soon return to the Granite State?  Wolves have been absent from New Hampshire for more than a century, but sightings have increased in neighboring areas. Large gray wolves have been seen in northern Maine, but the more likely species to show up in New Hampshire is the smaller eastern wolf.  Eastern coyotes can weigh up to 60 pounds, and eastern wolves are only slightly larger. There have even been reports of eastern wolves and coyotes breeding in Ontario, Schadler said. But cases of mistaken identity often prove fatal.  “Wolves are trying to come back into Northeastern states. They are shot frequently because hunters think that they’re large coyotes,” Schadler said. “Wolves would be here if they weren’t continuously shot.”  Still, Litvaitis said, it seems likely that wolves will eventually make their way into the state.  “The regularity of sightings in Maine and Canada suggest that it’s just a matter of time,” he said.

“We definitely have the habitat here for wolves, but whether we have the social tolerance for them is really the question.” —Christine Schadler of Project Coyote

A close relative of the bobcat also has reemerged in New Hampshire. Lynx have been identified in the northern part of the state, likely crossing over from Canada. Litvaitis is less hopeful about the return of another large cat: the cougar. Although citizens report cougar sightings nearly every year, there has not been a confirmed cougar in New Hampshire for more than 150 years.  And, unlike wolves, they haven’t been officially identified anywhere nearby, either.  “If it’s based on natural dispersal, it’s going to take a very long time,” Litvaitis said. “It’s an animal that is at such low density that for it to repopulate an area on its own is going to take an awful long time.”  It’s also unlikely that New Hampshire officials would consider reintroducing cougars to the state — especially since they are potentially dangerous to humans. In that sense, wolves face a similar challenge.  “We definitely have the habitat here for wolves, but whether we have the social tolerance for them is really the question,” Schadler said.