Jeff Berger saw something a couple of years ago that he had never seen in the wild.
“It was a bobcat in the Worthington (Iowa) area,” said Berger, of Dubuque. “I hadn’t seen one before. I was in awe.”
An increasing number of bobcats in the area has prompted state wildlife officials to consider adding Delaware, Dubuque and Jones counties to Iowa’s legal harvest zone for the animals, which were once considered all but eradicated in the state.
“The bobcat population continues to grow and expand from the south up through Iowa,” said Vince Evelsizer, furbearer and wetland biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “There were very few in our state, and they were protected for many years.”
Bobcats originally were native to Iowa, but they were mostly wiped out by human settlement and loss of woodsy habitat by the early 1900s. They were protected as an endangered species in the state by 1977.
“Then, we began to see some bobcats move back to Iowa in the late 1990s — primarily from the south,” Evelsizer said. “Their numbers continued to grow.”
About 5,000 to 8,000 bobcats now live in Iowa, according to recent wildlife surveys.
Brian Preston, Dubuque County Conservation Board executive director, said he believes as many as 200 bobcats reside locally.
“We’ve always had a remnant population. I can remember releasing some bobcats 30 years ago that had been incidentally trapped,” Preston said. “Then, (bobcat) immigration from the south really bolstered the population. We’re getting a lot of trail camera pictures (of bobcats), and this past fall, we had a lot of roadkills. Our rabbit population also has increased in recent years, and bobcats have responded to that.”
About twice the size of a common house cat, bobcats survive on a diet that is about 95% made up of rabbits, mice, voles and squirrels, according to DNR studies. They prefer to live on the edges of timber and grasslands, and the cats are often on the move due to the territorial nature of the males. Bobcats in Iowa are known to travel as far as 10 miles per week.
As the bobcat population grew, state wildlife officials launched a limited bobcat harvesting season in 2007, primarily in Iowa’s southern counties. Counties were added to the zone as the bobcat population expanded into new areas.
Jackson County has been included in the bobcat harvest zone since the 2018-19 season.
“With all of the timber you have up there, you have good habitat for bobcats,” said Craig Sweet, president of Iowa Trappers Association. “There must be quite a few cats in that area.”
Northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin also have sizable bobcat populations and state-regulated harvests.
Illinois hunters and trappers take about 300 bobcats per season, according to state data. Two bobcats were harvested by hunters or trappers in Jo Daviess County during the four-month season that ended Feb. 15, and nine were taken the season before.
In Wisconsin, preliminary data from the 2020-21 season shows 16 bobcats taken in Grant County, 15 in Iowa County, eight in Crawford County and one in Lafayette County, according to the state’s natural resources department.
The proposed rule in Iowa would allow a hunter or trapper to take one bobcat in Delaware, Dubuque and Jones counties during the season, which begins on the Saturday of the first full weekend in November and concludes Jan. 31.
“I think it would be a great control method, to keep them in check so they don’t get any disease,” said Berger, who has been trapping for about 40 years.
Preston said a well-regulated, limited harvest would have little impact on Dubuque County’s growing population
“We’re already seeing mortality, through incidental trapping and roadkill,” he said. “(Bobcats) should be managed so that we have them well into the future.”