It would have been conjecture to think of bears or mountain lions in southern Wisconsin a few years ago.
But these animals have since been photographed here.
So have bobcats.
The animal, which normally weighs 20 to 40 pounds, inhabits northern Wisconsin's forests but may be expanding its range as more reports of sightings are coming from southern Wisconsin.
Last fall, a bobcat was photographed by a landowner's trail camera in Dane County and the photo was sent to the Department of Natural Resources. Earlier, a bobcat was caught and released in a live trap in Juneau County.
"We are seeing an increased presence of bobcats in southern Wisconsin, especially in southwestern Wisconsin," said John Olson, furbearer specialist with the DNR in Park Falls. "We've had bobcats caught and released from foot-hold traps near Horicon, along the Mississippi River, and even in Dane County."
Bobcats live in forested habitat, normally in northern Wisconsin where snowshoe hares are found. They eat a diversity of prey. If snowshoe hare numbers are down, they will focus on other small mammals including rabbits, squirrels, opossums and birds.
An adult bobcat usually weighs in the 20- to 25-pound category, with some large males weighing 40 pounds. Last year, a large male was harvested that topped 50 pounds. A bobcat that big could prey upon deer fawns.
Bobcats have pointed ears with ear tufts, short tails about 6-inches long, cheek whiskers and the fur is orange/tan to brown with irregular black spots or blotches. They are usually most active at twilight around sunset or sunrise.
"The biggest thing that has helped the bobcat population increase was the mild 1990s," Olson said. "Bobcats are affected by deep snow. They have small feet and cannot maneuver in deep fluffy snow."
In the 1980s, when Olson worked as a field wildlife biologist in Iron County, there were years when he would go out and collect bobcats that had ventured into towns and actually starved to death. The snow was too deep and they couldn't survive, coming into town eating garbage or pet food.
Wildlife officials say people generally are not as concerned with having bobcats around -- as compared to wolves or mountain lions -- because they cause little depredation of domestic animals. They also aren't a safety concern to humans or a competitor for resources such as deer or livestock.
Bobcats are generally seen as being "cool," and Olson said he is not aware of any reports of bobcats attacking people.
Bobcats normally have their litters in spring, but have been known to have litters nine months out of 12.
Bobcats are one of the three wild cats native to the state (the others are cougars -- or mountain lions -- and the Canada lynx) and are much smaller than mountain lions, which can vary from 75 to 150 pounds. Mountain lions, which have a longer rope-like tail about 30 inches long and are usually one color such as tan or reddish or grayish with a white belly, focus on larger prey and are a big predator of white-tailed deer. Unlike bobcats, mountain lions have been known to attack humans.
The Canada lynx is an animal of the far north, often cedar swamps, and very few are known to exist in Wisconsin.
Bobcats can be hunted and trapped, under a restrictive permit system. The season is only open north of Highway 64, this year from Oct. 16 to Dec. 25 and then a second period is Dec. 26 through January 31, 2011.
Special harvest permits necessary
All hunters and trappers must receive a special harvest permit before pursuing bobcats. Permit numbers are based on the success rate during the previous three years, and since permit applications exceed the quota, a drawing is held to select successful applicants.
"It used to be that anyone who wanted a permit could receive it free of charge, and we issued about 1,500 permits," Olson said, noting that the DNR then limited the permit issuance under a quota recommendation on the number of bobcats that can be harvested by hunting or trapping.
"Public interest skyrocketed for bobcats, and each year we have a new record as far as applicants," Olson said. "Success rates have gone from 5 percent to 55 percent too, which is astounding and creates a challenge for management of the population."
The DNR estimates that there are about 3,000 bobcats in the "harvest zone," or north of Highway 64, and the DNR wants to keep the harvest to about 12 percent of the population and in recent years it has been about 10 percent.
"But the interest is phenomenal now, and people have to apply for about five years before they get a permit," Olson said.
All bobcats harvested are registered by DNR and data recorded on the sex and age of the animal.
During the 2008 harvest season, hunters and trappers registered 367 bobcats. The counties with the highest harvest were Sawyer (42), Rusk (33), Lincoln (28), Price and Taylor (27).
The DNR reports that the average pelt price for bobcats in 2008 was $38.55, ranging from $15 to $75.
The DNR sets annual bobcat harvest goals based on population size in relation to management goals. The number of harvest permits that are issued is based on the highest success rate during the previous three years.
In the early 1990s several anti-hunting groups sued the DNR about the bobcat hunting and trapping seasons, saying that the animal should be placed on the endangered species list.
The DNR reviewed all of the data and stood by the open seasons.
The plaintiffs lost in Dane County court, and the case was appealed and lost in an appellate court and then went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and lost.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the DNR holding a regulated harvest, which would not jeopardize the bobcat population.
Send in your photos to the DNR
The Department of Natural Resources is asking landowners to submit trail camera photos of rare, endangered and unusual species in the state.
Brian Dhuey, database manager for the DNR, said that the photos often don't distinguish between whether the animals are transient or resident, but last year one photo showed a female bobcat with kits in Buffalo County, indicating a resident breeding population.
Trail camera photos can be sent to the DNR Web site's deer photos page or sent directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.