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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Bobcats Faring Well, Boosting License Sales

Wisconsin’s bobcat population has grown steadily this century, expanding its range and numbers while triggering explosive interest among hunters and trappers.

In response, the Department of Natural Resources issued 3,645 bobcat tags in 2022, the highest total in over 30 years, and 22 times more than the 165 tags the agency issued in 2012. Results from the 2022-23 bobcat season won’t be official until later this spring, but preliminary counts show the kill was 430 in the northern zone and 366 in the southern zone.

State Highway 64 separates Wisconsin’s two bobcat zones, a management system the DNR created in 2014. Both zones hold two hunting/trapping seasons annually, mid-October through Christmas, and Dec. 26 to Jan. 31.

The 2022-23 total kill of 796 bobcats was 21% below the previous year’s 1,005 hunting/trapping harvest. Much of the decline occurred in the northern zone, where the bobcat harvest fell 29% from 604 in 2021. The southern zone’s kill was 9% down from 401 the previous year.

Shawn Rossler, the DNR’s furbearer specialist, said bad winter weather during the second period likely caused much of those declines. Snowstorms hit the Northwoods on several weekends after Christmas, canceling hunts for many people.

Wisconsin reported a record 1,104 bobcat kills statewide in 2020-21 and fell just shy of that mark in 2021-22 with 1,078. Those 2021-22 totals also include 17 tribal kills, and 56 road-kills and other accidental kills, all of which add about 75 bobcats to the overall harvest. Therefore, the 2022-23 final totals will likely be about 860 bobcats, making it the third highest harvest in DNR records dating to 1980.

Rossler said the state went to its two-zone management system when it became clear bobcats were doing well across southwestern Wisconsin. Roughly speaking, most Wisconsin bobcats live north and west of a line from Madison to Green Bay, with the highest numbers occurring in far northwestern counties.

“Bobcat numbers have been increasing the past couple of decades across the Midwest, not just Wisconsin,” Rossler said.

For now, it’s not known if bobcats from Wisconsin’s Northwoods are dispersing southward into southern counties and northern Illinois, or if bobcat populations in Iowa and southern Illinois are pushing eastward and northward. Researchers at Iowa’s Luther College are studying bobcat dispersals across the Midwest to help answer that question.

Either way, Wisconsin’s top bobcat counties during the 2021-22 hunting/trapping seasons were Douglas, 113 kills; Bayfield, 60; Price, 51; Oneida and Taylor, 50; and Sawyer, 45.

Rossler said the county-by-county totals for 2022-23 aren’t yet complete, nor are the hunting/trapping and sub-season specifics for last fall and January. The overall kill usually differs little by time periods, but the northern zone outproduces the southern zone by season and method.

Further, trappers statewide fare better during the early season, while hunters – particularly houndsmen – do better during the late season. In 2021-22, for example, trappers caught 284 (81%) of their 352 bobcats in the early season, and houndsmen took 396 (69%) of their 575 bobcats during the late season. Hunters using calls or other tactics did better during 2021-22’s early season, taking 46 (62%) of their 74 bobcats before Christmas.

Rossler doesn’t expect the DNR to set the 2023-24 bobcat quota and determine how many tags to offer until its furbearer advisory committee meets in late May. The DNR sets permit numbers after analyzing population estimates and success rates from previous seasons. The 3,645 permits issued in 2022-23 marked the 10th straight year the agency increased those allocations after issuing a record-low 165 permits statewide in 2012.

Meanwhile, the number of hunters and trappers seeking a bobcat permit also increased as bobcat numbers and tag allocations grew. Only 2,358 people applied for a tag in 1992, but interest nearly doubled by 2002 to 5,297, and doubled again by 2012 when 11,424 applied. Applications then hovered around 14,000 to 18,500 from 2013 to 2020 before leaping 62% from 16,974 in 2020 to 27,567 in 2021. Bobcat applicants then hit a record 29,162 last year.

Why the big increase the past two years? “When it jumped in 2021, I thought it might be related to the pandemic, with more people looking for outdoor pursuits,” Rossler said. “But after it increased again in 2022, I think it’s likely related to more permits being available. That usually means shorter waits for hunters and trappers to draw a permit.”

In 2022, no one drew a harvest permit without at least two preference points. In the southern zone, 828 applicants for the early season and 231 applicants for the late season drew tags with only two preference points. Those with three preference points also fared well in the southern zone, with 314 drawing tags for the early season and 406 drawing tags for the late season.

The odds weren’t as good in the northern zone, where no one drew the late season unless they had at least six preference points. Those choosing the zone’s early season fared better, with 26 drawing with two preference points, 462 drawing with three points, and 140 drawing with four points.

Those interested in applying for a bobcat permit this year have until Aug. 1 to buy a preference point or enter the drawing for a permit. Applications cost $6.

Rossler said most bobcat hunters and trappers aren’t motivated by pelt prices, which hovered from $38 to $45 per pelt the past five years. The highest average prices for a Wisconsin pelt the past 40 years were $126.60 in 2012, $97.60 in 2013, and $91.67 in 2011.

DNR surveys of bobcat hunters and trappers find that most people get the pelt tanned for display, or take it to a taxidermist for use on a full-body mount.

Wisconsin’s bobcat population remains highest in northwestern counties, while steadily increasing in southwestern counties. Snapshot Wisconsin DNR photo

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