Call it a comeback: Bobcats are making their way back to the state

Jacob Price was on an early morning jog near the Wightman’s Grove area by the Sandusky River in Fremont when he spotted something that caused him to stop and stare in stunned silence. 

In a marshy area sat a bobcat, looking back at him. 

“It stared at me, and I stared back,” says Price, of Tiffin, a nature enthusiast who was staying in a nearby campground. “Then it took off into the marsh. As soon as I got back to the campground, I was telling people. I still don’t think everyone believes what I saw.”

Price’s encounter with this wild elusive cat, which happened a couple of years ago, is a rarity in this region.

Sightings like this continue to highlight how bobcats are one of Ohio’s great wildlife success stories. Once completely gone from Ohio, bobcats continue to make an impressive comeback, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the state. 

“It’s great to be able to see how, in a relatively short amount of time, conservation efforts and the return of suitable habitat have allowed this native species to return,” says Katie Dennison, Wildlife Biologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. “I think it also demonstrates just how resilient this species is, that they came back through natural expansion, and they continue to expand into new areas of the state. They’re obviously a very charismatic species, too, so it’s rewarding to see how interested, and often excited people are about bobcats in Ohio.”

Once endangered in the state, the bobcat population recovered so well that in 2014, bobcats were removed from the endangered list. Although bobcats are not common in the Sandusky region, some have been spotted in the area over the years.

In Price’s encounter, the bobcat’s behavior is typical for a run-in with a human.

“If you’re observing them from afar, enjoy the opportunity,” Dennison says of the cats, which are two to three times bigger than an average house cat. “Bobcats are elusive and very difficult to see in the wild. Bobcats avoid humans, and once they realize you are there, they will typically take off.”

Once endangered in the state, the bobcat population recovered so well that in 2014, bobcats were removed from the endangered list. (Photo/Ohio Division of Wildlife)Bobcat recovery 

In the 1700s, Bobcats were common in the state, which was about 95 percent covered in forest, according to ODNR’s bobcat management plan. As settlers moved in and began clearing the land for farms, the cats lost habitat. 

Their teeth, as well as effigies of them on pipes, have been found at prehistoric archaeological sites in Ohio, according to the management plan. 

By 1850, much of the bobcat habitat was gone, and the cats were no longer found in Ohio. They also had been overhunted, sometimes by people concerned they might go after livestock. 

The first modern-day sighting was reported in 1946. When the endangered species list was started in 1974, bobcats were put on Ohio’s endangered list. 

“After reaching a low point in 1940, forest cover in Ohio started to increase as many farms were converted back to forest,” says Dennison, who is the furbearer biologist for Ohio and responsible for overseeing and coordinating monitoring and research of Ohio bobcats. “This provided important habitat for returning bobcat populations. Also, by the time bobcats started to re-establish in the state, regulations were in place to protect bobcats from harvest, which allowed the population to establish and grow.”

Similar efforts in neighboring states, such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, also helped in the recovery of Ohio bobcats. Thriving populations from neighboring states began expanding into Ohio.

After the cats were added to Ohio’s endangered list, a few sightings were reported, mostly in the forested areas of eastern and southern Ohio. By the early 2000s, the number of sightings started to steadily increase each year. 

From 1970 to 2021, 4,159 confirmed sightings were documented in 81 of Ohio’s 88 counties, according to the management plan. 

In 2012, ODNR began capturing and collaring bobcats to help study their range and habits. From 2012 through 2015, the division and cooperating researchers trapped, placed tracking collars on and monitored 28 bobcats in two different study areas in southeastern Ohio. 

“The collaring project was a short-term project to collect information on the bobcat population,” Dennison says. “We learned a lot from the project, including information on bobcat home range size, habitat use, survival, and causes of mortality in Ohio.”

The main cause of death for bobcats in Ohio is being hit on the road by vehicles.
In addition to reported sightings and its on-going research, ODNR uses a survey of bowhunters to help with sighting confirmations. 

“Each year, we have sightings submitted by hunters who see them walking under their tree stands,” she says. “Because these hunters are out of view and are presumably remaining quiet so as not to spook approaching deer, in most cases the bobcat probably never even knew they were there.”

In 2012, ODNR began capturing and collaring bobcats to help study their range and habits. (Photo/Ohio Division of Wildlife)Where can you see them?

Bobcats prefer forested areas with few roads and natural grasslands and pasture. They also like swampy areas and open fields. The Sandusky region likely would not be a hotbed for bobcat dens because it doesn’t have a lot of this type of habitat, Dennison says. 

“Bobcat sightings in that part of the state are very uncommon, and at this time we don’t have evidence of reproduction occurring in that area,” she says. “That habitat in that area is not ideal for supporting bobcats. However, they do at least occasionally pass through that area.”

Erie County had its first confirmed bobcat sighting this year after a bobcat was spotted on a trail camera in October near the Huron River, Dennison says.

Since 1970, there have been two confirmed sightings in Sandusky and Ottawa counties. ODNR defines a confirmed sighting as one with evidence, such as trail camera footage, first-person photos, or roadkill.

In this region, they are mostly likely to be spotted in the woods or in a swampy/marshy area, although it would not be unusual to be close to one and never see it.

“They are also very well camouflaged in the woods, and they rely on their ability to hide in order to take prey, so they are very good at going unnoticed,” Dennison says. “Chances of seeing one in the wild are slim, but it doesn’t mean they’re not there.”

Bobcat sightings are most likely to happen from September through January because their activity increases during this time, according to the management plan. 

In the fall, young bobcats begin to leave their mother’s home range to establish their own area. Bobcats start breeding in January. 

“This time of year also corresponds with hunting and trapping seasons, when people may be more likely to be in the field and encounter a bobcat, or have a trail camera set up, which may also account for some of the increase in sightings during this time,” the management plan states. 

Generally not a threat to people, pets

For those who do see a bobcat in the wild, it most likely would run away and not pose a threat. 

“Bobcat attacks on humans are incredibly rare, and in those rare instances that they do occur it almost always involves a bobcat that is very sick or has become habituated to humans,” Dennison says. 

If a bobcat does approach a human, this is not normal behavior. The person can scare them off by yelling and making noise, as well as waving their hands in the air.
They should not turn their back to the animal and run. Instead, they should slowly make their way to a safe location, Dennison says. 

“If you know a bobcat is in an area, it’s also a good idea to keep pets indoors or on a leash,” she says. “But again, I want to stress, bobcat attacks on people are incredibly rare. They generally want nothing to do with us.”
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