Into the Wild

Indiana bobcat population is on the rise

Wildlife restoration efforts in southern Indiana
are on the rebound

(January 2015) – Almost every day, there is dire news about the environment, be it global warming or extinction of another species. However, 2015 brings positive news in this little pocket of the world. Wildlife restoration efforts are working.   
In mid-December 2014, five rare whooping cranes spent a few days at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Jennings County, Ind., along with 17,000 sandhill cranes. Within a few days, there were 23,800 sandhills at the refuge. One day, Dan Wood, wildlife refuge specialist, got within 50 yards of two whooping cranes, the largest, most majestic crane. There are only 200 left in the world, and they migrate between Canada and Texas.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. He took a picture with his phone but got only “two white blobs.”  They were a mated couple that had returned to the refuge when the others moved on, he thinks, based on banding which identified the individuals. A few days later, however, two more whooping cranes were back at the refuge.


Photo courtesy of Joe Robb

Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge director Joe Robb took this photo of a bobcat in December 2012.

On Dec. 14, 2014, two Golden Eagles showed up for the annual Christmas Bird Count at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge, located at the former Jefferson Proving Ground outside Madison, Ind. While on the bird count, Alex Wardwell, a birder and volunteer at Big Oaks, reported she had seen an email alert about a Snowy Owl sighting in nearby Jackson County, and she’d like to go take a look.
Snowy Owls usually live in the Arctic Circle. Their arrival in the United States is historic and unprecedented. Bird watchers have been ecstatic but also worried, according to Henry Tepper, president of Audubon of Massachusetts and quoted in the New York Times. Were the Snowy Owls moving south because of climate change or was their more food in their Arctic habitat?
The Christmas Bird Count was held on a chilly gray day that made birds hard to see for the untrained eye. But 21 participants identified 53 species or 1,540 individual birds. In addition to the Golden Eagles, rare finds of the day were the Le Conte’s Sparrow, the Red-Breasted Nuthatch and 70 Rusty Blackbirds, according to Joe Robb, Ph.D., refuge manager. He has a Ph.D. in zoology from the Ohio State University and has managed Big Oaks refuge since 2004.

DNR staff Bobcat

Photo courtesy of the Indiana DNR

An Indiana Department of Natural Resources official holds a bobcat in the middle photo above.

Each year, the Christmas Bird Count begins on Dec. 14 and runs through Jan. 5. It involves tens of thousands of volunteers nationally. Families, students, birders and scientists arm themselves with binoculars, bird guides and checklists so they can go out on an annual mission to assess the health of the nation’s bird population and help guide conservation action.
Earlier in the week, Dr. Robb sat in his small office at Big Oaks. In addition to the Christmas Bird Count, he talked about the resurgence of the bobcat population in this area and the abundance of wildlife in the wetlands, forests and grasslands at the refuge. The refuge is a stronghold for 500 pairs of the state-endangered Henslow’s sparrow, which breeds in the large grasslands of Big Oaks. The refuge has been designated as a “Globally Important Bird Area.” This is because of its value to Henslow’s sparrow and other migratory birds. The Indiana bat, which is federally endangered, uses the refuge for summer foraging, roosting and rearing its young. There is a nesting pair of Bald Eagles at Old Timbers Lake.
Quite a few species have made their way back to this area in large numbers due to changes in habitat, according to Robb. They include the wild turkey, bald eagle, river otter, bobcats, peregrine falcon, white-tailed deer and coyote. Restoration programs and environmental changes have brought about a resurgence of wildlife in Indiana.
“The bobcat was pretty uncommon when I got here in 1998,” Robb said. Ten years ago, it became more common for him to hear reports of bobcats with kittens and to see evidence that bobcats were reproducing. They liked the habitat with its scrub, thickets, rolling hills and woodlands of southern Indiana. Moreover, the habitat offered plenty to eat: rabbits, rodents, birds and small beavers.


Photos courtesy of the Indiana DNR

This photo shows the versatile look of this once endangered animal.

This fall Robb actually saw a bobcat call her kitten, making a sound he’d never heard. “It was like a bird call to its young,” he said. He had been hunting deer when he saw the bobcat on a log about 20 to 30 feet away from him. The bobcat stopped and started to call for the small kitten. He has a short video of the experience, as well as beautiful photographs of bobcats at Jefferson Proving Grounds.
How many bobcats are there at Big Oaks? “It’s hard to say how many,” Robb said. “There are more than 10 and less than 200.”
Shawn Rossler, fur bearer biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Fish and Wildlife, is the “point man” for bobcats in Indiana. Bobcats are so “elusive” that the state has no exact count on how many live here. They can, however, count “road kill” annually. In 2008, there were 40 bobcats killed on roads throughout Indiana. In the past three to four years, 70 to 80 were killed on Indiana’s roads.
The range of bobcats in Indiana is southern Indiana, south of Indianapolis from the Wabash River to the state’s border with Ohio.
Asked if there has been a resurgence of bobcats in Indiana, Rossler replied, “Absolutely.’
Bobcats were heavily trapped and hunted in the early 1900s. That decimated their numbers. Habitat change drastically reduced their numbers due to land clearing and development. In 1969, bobcats were classified as state endangered. With protection, the small population was able to slowly increase to the point that they were removed from the state’s endangered species list in 2005. They remain a protected species.
“Eventually, they hit exponential growth,” Rossler said. “We now are seeing that available habitat has become saturated. There are more bobcats in small areas.”
Rossler describes the bobcat as a “secretive animal,” one that “is around but we don’t always see them.” Bobcats are nocturnal, fast-footed and elusive. Impressive in appearance, they have prominent tufted ears and reddish-brown fur with black spots, streaks and whitish bellies. They stand two feet tall and three feet long and weigh from 15 to 35 pounds, Rossler said. 
Three years ago, Alex Wardwell moved to southern Indiana from Wisconsin with her husband, Ben Walker, who works for Big Oaks. In that time, she has seen three bobcats. She describes Indiana’s bobcats as somewhat “less secretive” than those in Wisconsin, although Ben described it this way: “The population is doing well.”
Until recently, bobcats never had been documented at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, according to Wood. Initial attempts to document them using predator scent failed, he said, because of the territorial nature of bobcats. In August, they were able to document three bobcats using trail camera mounted on trees without any scents or attractants. 

As Wood discussed news about the bobcats and the whooping cranes, he also talked about the “explosion” in the Sandhill Crane population at Muscatatuck. Since 2008, most of the wetlands are being managed at lower, more natural water levels for waterfowl and other birds such as sandhill cranes. Levels had been kept higher in some wetlands from 1992-2007 during recovery efforts for otters, but waterfowl use declined dramatically during that period.

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