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Scientists track bobcats in Virginia, hoping to protect them and other wildlife

Bobcats make a fearsome sound, but Virginia Tech grad student Nicole Gorman is not afraid.

“A bobcat will never approach a human unless it was sick or something was wrong with it,” she explains.

She’s spent the last four months tracking bobcats that roam in western Albemarle County – setting up 50 cameras and 14 traps on land between Charlottesville and the Shenandoah National Park. Once found in Virginia forests, Gorman says these cats now live all over the state, and their numbers have been growing since the 50’s.

“Fur trapping began to decline and then populations rose. They had lived in deep dark forest, and now they’re found in all kinds of habitats," Gorman says.

Bobcats usually weigh 10-25 pounds and are two or three feet long with a short tail and furry sideburns. They’re rarely seen by residents, but Gorman knows how to trap them. We approach a small metal cage under a tree strung with CDs.

“All cats are the same. They see shiny, interesting things, and they want to go investigate.”

The animals are also drawn by meat in the traps. They’re fond of venison, rabbit, squirrel or chicken, and they’re intrigued by smells.

“Those can be from other cats and other good stuff like skunk scent,” says Gorman.

She checks a camera that’s loaded with pictures, triggered by motion.

“Sometimes there will be 2,000 photos – not bobcats but crows or deer or vultures will come and hang out for a while, and there are just thousands of pictures of them too.”

Virginia Tech students Nicole Gorman, Emma Young and Kevin Bayne set up a trap, hoping to examine a bobcat.
Nicole Gorman
Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech students Nicole Gorman, Emma Young and Kevin Bayne set up a trap, hoping to examine a bobcat.

Gorman and two assistants now have photos of a dozen different cats, and six times in the course of a three-month study, they discovered a bobcat in one of their traps.

“Sometimes they’ll growl or hiss or kind of bluff charge you,” Gorman recalls.

The Virginia Tech team will adjust the cage – gradually making it smaller, so the cat can’t move around, and the scientists can inject it with a sedative. Ten minutes later it’s sleeping peacefully, and they start a thorough exam.

Traps can be adjusted to keep cats from moving around so scientists can safely administer a sedative.
Nicole Gorman
Virginia Tech
Traps can be adjusted to keep cats from moving around so scientists can safely administer a sedative.

They measure and weigh the cat, take blood and tissue samples, photograph each animal’s unique coat – brown or grey with black and white markings, clip each with an ear tag and fit these wildcats with a lightweight tracking device.

They speak softly – not wanting to disturb the animal’s slumber, and when they’re finished, they open the trap and watch as the cat wakes up and bolts.

For the next two years they’ll be tracking the animals electronically with two main goals, according to Professor Brett Jesmer, lead scientist on the study.

“What we really want to know is what types of habitats allow them to survive and reproduce the best, and then how we can connect up all those habitats and protect particular areas,” he explains.

Jesmer and Gorman have support from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. They’re sharing information with Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Albemarle County , the Virginia Safe Wildlife Crossing Collaborative and VDOT – using bobcats to protect other animals.

“Because they have a wide breadth of habitat use, we think they might actually serve as what we call an umbrella species – meaning that by protecting their habitat we would protect the habitat of many other wildlife species as well,” Jesmer says.

And their study could have national implications as the Biden Administration strives to protect wildlife by saving thirty percent of the nation’s land as open space by the year 2030.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief