Where the Wild Things Are

What's the story behind the increased spottings of bobcats, bears and coyotes in Rhode Island?

The bright orange tackle box in the back of Charles Brown’s state-owned pickup truck is filled with all sorts of lures, none of which have anything to do with fishing. Instead, like the shelves in a chemistry lab, it contains small, colorful bottles of murky liquids emitting unappetizing aromas. With names like Cat-man-doo, Gusto and Cat Fancy, their contents are used by trappers and hunters to attract predators. One, called Booty Call, contains a putrid mix of secretions from a bobcat’s anal gland that Brown carefully applied to a series of box traps he and University of Rhode Island researcher Amy Mayer set up in South Kingstown last winter.

Mayer and Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), used the lures almost daily for five months last fall and winter as part of a project to capture bobcats in South County. Their objective was to assess what appears to be a growing population of the state’s only wild feline. The animals have been sighted with increased frequency in almost every community in mainland Rhode Island, but little is known about how widely they travel, what they eat and other aspects of their behavior and ecology.

Growing up to thirty-five pounds, bobcats are the most widely distributed wild cat in North America, where they can be encountered in deserts, prairies, mountains and coastal regions. They have always been present in Rhode Island, though they have gone through periods when they were quite scarce. Today they are most often reported in South Kingstown, Westerly and Foster, though they are known to travel through the most densely populated areas of the state as well.

Bobcats are among a group of large predators, including black bears, fishers and coyotes, that are making some residents feel that their suburban communities have become more like the wilds of Yellowstone National Park than the safe enclave to which they had been accustomed. And although the animals’ arrival in the region has been spread out over several decades, many people perceive that the predators have recently become increasingly bold as they wander through neighborhoods and brazenly stand their ground.

According to Brown and several others who study mammals in the region, there are a number of factors contributing to the appearance in Rhode Island of these top predators, including decades of habitat protection, a reduction in unregulated hunting and trapping and the maturing of the state’s forests.

“We’re seeing the effects of all these factors,” he says. “But we’re also at a critical point right now. Once land gets converted to development, there’s no going back. These animals might be at their peak right now, and they may not be sustainable if we continue developing.”

On a warm February morning, Brown and Mayer (pictured left) walk across a series of meadows criss-crossed by stone walls less than a half-mile from Route 1 in Matunuck, hoping to find a bobcat trapped in one of the ten wire mesh cages they have hidden in brushy areas in South County. Baited with dead rabbits and ducks, the trap sites are decorated with colorful feathers and shiny pie-plates to attract the attention of bobcats wandering in the area. The traps are also equipped with sensors that send a signal to Mayer when an animal has become entrapped, and motion-sensing cameras adjacent to each trap capture images of any animals that approach.

“We know we have bobcats visiting our traps regularly — we can see the pictures — so we know they’re interested,” says Brown, who grew up in Barrington and has worked for DEM since 1999. “But the weather this winter has been warm, so they probably have easy access to food. They haven’t reached the point yet that they’re really hungry. We’ll have better luck trapping them in harsh weather when it’s harder for them to find prey.”

That’s why the biologists have been experimenting with the various scent lures in Brown’s tackle box. They are trying to keep the traps appealing to the animals. They have even contacted expert bobcat trappers and other researchers to pick their brains for their favorite trapping techniques. But nothing is working. The first trap they check that morning on property owned by the South Kingstown Land Trust contains nothing but the bait, even though photographs a week earlier showed three young bobcats sniffing around the trap. A second trap nearby is also empty.

So they drive two miles to the South Shore Management Area where photographs indicated that at least two different adult bobcats have recently visited one of the traps nestled between two large boulders. Mayer approaches the first trap with high hopes, because the sensor had alerted her earlier that morning that the trap was closed. But it isn’t. The sensor had malfunctioned. Neither trap has captured anything.

Half a mile away on private property, the biologists carefully approach a closed trap only to find that it contains an opossum, a regular visitor that is sleeping so soundly that the researchers just prop open the trap so the animal can leave at its leisure. Nearby coyote tracks might also explain the animal’s reluctance to leave the safety of the trap.

Coyotes were the first of the large predators to arrive in the region. After a continent-wide range expansion that began in the Great Plains around 1900, they became resident in Rhode Island in the mid-1960s and were widespread in the state two decades later. They flourished in part because they had no competition; the previous predators at the top of the food chain, wolves and mountain lions, had been eradicated from the region about 150 years earlier, so there was plenty of food available.

According to Numi Mitchell, a biologist who has studied coyotes on Aquidneck Island since 2004, the decline of agriculture in the region also helped coyotes in their expansion into New England by creating new pockets of habitat after farm fields had been abandoned. The land protection movement, especially legislation to protect wetlands, further provided habitat for coyotes and their prey.

“All this new habitat increased biodiversity and created multiple niches for predators,” says Mitchell. “Coyotes are opportunistic and highly adaptable and will take advantage of whatever kind of dense cover is available.”

It didn’t take long, however, for the animals to be perceived as a problem. Although they tend to avoid direct interactions with humans, coyotes soon showed up in backyards, attacked domestic pets and livestock, and frightened people who weren’t used to encountering predatory animals.

It is unknown how many coyotes may reside in the state because they are very difficult to census. No one is even willing to hazard a guess. But Mitchell says the only factor that limits their population growth is food. Coyotes are territorial, and the size of their territory is an indication of how much food is available. Abundant prey means that more animals can reside in smaller territories, while large territories indicate prey is scarce, so fewer coyotes can make a living there.

“If food is available, though, you can’t even hunt them out of an area,” Mitchell says.

Fishers, on the other hand, are easy to eliminate. All you have to do is cut down most of the state’s forests. That’s exactly what happened in Rhode Island 200 years ago, causing the state’s fisher population to disappear. But now, the forests are back, and so are the fishers.

Thomas Dupree, retired chief of the Rhode Island Division of Forestry, said that forests covered 95 percent of the state prior to European colonization. Fishers, chocolate-colored weasels closely related to otters and mink, were likely common then. But by 1850, just 25 percent of the state’s forests were left after more than a century of clearcutting for agriculture, which forced forest-dependent species like fishers to move elsewhere. As agricultural lands were abandoned in the latter half of the 1800s, however, forests began to regenerate in their place. Widespread fires through the early 1900s kept forests from dominating the landscape until fire suppression became common in the 1950s. It took another thirty years for Rhode Island’s forests to mature enough for fishers to return.

In the intervening years, fishers from throughout southern New England retreated northward. By the early 1900s, just three remnant populations remained: in the Moosehead Plateau region of Maine, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the Adirondacks of northern New York. Genetic analysis has confirmed that Rhode Island’s current population of fishers descends from the New Hampshire population. Today, Brown says that fishers have reoccupied just about everywhere in mainland Rhode Island where there is appropriate habitat, and the population is no longer growing.

Despite their reputation for eating housecats (and their common misnomer, fisher cat), fishers primarily prey upon small mammals such as squirrels and chipmunks, though they are opportunistic animals and will scavenge dead carcasses and consume berries and crabapples as well.

A bobcat, whose picture was captured by a game cam. Coyotes like dense woods; no one knows how many live in Rhode Island.

 “A lot of people assume that if their cat didn’t come home, it was killed by a fisher, but that’s an urban legend,” Brown says. “A male fisher, weighing twelve to fifteen pounds, is certainly capable of killing a housecat, and I’m sure it has happened, but cats are much more likely to be predated by coyotes.” Female fishers, he noted, weigh just five pounds, considerably smaller than most housecats.

When fishers were first returning to Rhode Island in the 1990s, Brown collected road-killed fisher carcasses and analyzed their stomach contents to determine what they were eating. None had recently consumed domestic animals. But that doesn’t mean fishers aren’t a legitimate worry for some residents. Brown gets calls every year about fishers getting into chicken coops, and the increased interest in raising chickens and letting them run loose has made free-range chicken a popular menu item for some fishers.

“Most of the calls we get about fishers are from people seeing them and not knowing what to do or what it means,” Brown says. “It’s not that the animal has done anything; it’s their very presence that appears to be a cause for concern.”

Fishers, Brown discovered, are much easier to trap than bobcats. The bobcat traps he and Mayer checked every day last winter unintentionally caught several fishers, along with foxes, opossums and a red-tailed hawk. After months of work, however, they captured only one bobcat, and it happened just two weeks after the project started.

“My first reaction was total shock,” says Mayer, who earned two degrees from URI before being hired by the university to track wildlife around the state. “We had gotten some trail camera pictures of him visiting the area the previous week, but I wasn’t expecting to catch him so quickly.”
 

 

DEM wildlife biologist Charles Brown in his office, with friends, all native to Rhode Island.
 

At 5:30 a.m. on November 4, the nineteen-pound male bobcat entered a trap set behind an orchard at the University of Rhode Island’s East Farm. His capture triggered a complex process that involved half a dozen participants — Brown was out of town that day — who sprang to action as soon as Mayer called.

As the response team approached the trap, Mayer says the bobcat became irritated and snarled aggressively. So a graduate student distracted the animal while URI veterinarian David Serra used a “jab stick” — a syringe on the end of a long pole — to anesthetize him. During the next forty-five minutes, the bobcat received a detailed physical examination while a series of measurements were taken to enable the researchers to compare him with other bobcats. They also removed a tooth to determine the animal’s age, collected tissue and blood samples for genetic analysis, inserted an identifying tag beneath his skin, and fitted the bobcat with a radio collar enabling the researchers to track his movements. After recovering from the anesthesia, the animal sprinted into the woods.

Based on weekly tracking using a telemetry receiver, which allowed Mayer to download his movements whenever she got within 100 yards of the animal, the bobcat wandered widely. He spent time in Snug Harbor and Bonnet Shores in Narragansett, then raced to Charlestown before retracing his steps to Matunuck and elsewhere in South Kingstown. Mayer occasionally lost track of him for a few days at a time, but she always caught up to him eventually. Once, the bobcat explored Westerly, even crossing briefly into Connecticut, before returning to South Kingstown and Narragansett again.

Mayer and Brown worried about the number of busy roads the animal was crossing and the risks he was taking. And their worst fears eventually came true. Just four months after being trapped, the bobcat was struck and killed by a car while crossing Route 1. Yet he still provided the researchers with useful information.

“It’s hard to make broad statements with data from just one animal,” Brown says, “but we assume these walkabouts to Stonington and Narragansett were an effort to establish a territory. If he already had a defined territory, he probably would have wandered less.”

Rhode Island’s most recently arrived predator has been behaving in a similar way. A small number of juvenile black bears have been sighted at scattered locations throughout the West Bay in recent years. They were probably searching for a territory after having been evicted from their mothers’ territory. Thanks to curious residents capturing video of the naive bears, the animals made headline news nearly every time they came out of hiding. Like coyotes, fishers and bobcats before them, bears generate a great deal of excitement and concern among Rhode Islanders, though the bears’ much larger size makes them a more legitimate safety hazard.

There are no records of bears in the state in the 1800s or 1900s, though they were observed and hunted during the early years of colonization. But bear numbers have been growing rapidly in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and the overflow is beginning to arrive in the Ocean State.

“The pattern we’ve been observing is that juvenile males disperse in the spring, they bounce around here in Rhode Island visiting birdfeeders and backyards, and then they turn around and go back where they came,” says Brown. “Just because we have these transient males, though, doesn’t mean we have a resident population. But we’re getting close.”
 

Clockwise from top left: Mayer examines a tracking device. Game cams are set up near the traps to capture photos of the animals. A game cam captured a photo of a fisher near a trap. A sedated bobcat, caught in a trap on URI property last fall, was fitted with a radio collar and released.
 

How many males may be sticking around the state is unknown, and mothers with cubs have not officially been documented, despite a couple of unconfirmed reports. So in the bobcat-trapping offseason, Brown and Mayer are looking for evidence of bears. They have established forty-two “scent stations” in the western part of the state that they and a group of volunteers check weekly during the summer for evidence of visiting bears.

At one site in the Great Swamp Management Area, a 100-yard scramble through a thick understory of briers and laurel leads to a copse of oaks ideally arranged — five mature trees encircling a sixth. At about thigh height, a strand of barbed wire is wrapped around the circle of trees, and from the center tree hangs a rag soaked in fish oil, anise oil, bacon grease and caramel popcorn flavoring. The scented rag is intended to lure bears, which must cross the barbed wire to reach it, leaving behind a hair sample on the barbs for genetic analysis. But eight-een weeks of monitoring the scent stations in the last two years only turned up hair from deer, coyotes, fishers, foxes, raccoons and domestic dogs.

“It’s an early alert system so we know when bears are moving into an area,” explains Mayer. “Not getting any bear hair just means we don’t have a lot of bears here yet.”

URI professor Thomas Husband, a partner on the bear research project, isn’t surprised by the lack of success so far. “There are a lot of other smells that the bears can be attracted to, like garbage cans, grills, food in compost piles,” he says. “So from an odor perspective, our lures are competing with all these other scents.”

Husband is also unsurprised by the successful invasion of bears and other top predators into the region. They are all highly adaptable and intelligent animals that have proven they can survive living in close proximity to humans. He points to a lack of illegal hunting pressure as another contributing factor to their success.

“There was a time when if you saw a predator, you shot it,” he says. “We’re no longer sticking a rifle barrel out the window and knocking off these animals.”

The challenge for wildlife managers in the coming years, he says, will be finding the proper balance between the number of bears and other predators the habitat can support and the number that people are willing to tolerate.

That’s the big question for which biologists don’t have an answer. Now that the region has created the perfect circumstances to attract populations of top predators — abundant habitat, plentiful prey and well-managed hunting and trapping — are residents willing to live with the consequences?

To avoid the inevitable conflicts that arise when large animals become regular visitors to suburban neighborhoods, Numi Mitchell says residents should make a concerted effort to avoid providing the animals with easy access to food. That means refraining from leaving pets or livestock out at night and ending the practice of feeding pets outdoors. She also advises keeping trash cans well covered and bird feeders out of reach of bears. It would also help greatly if town and state workers disposed of road-killed deer before predators had a chance to consume them.

“Most of the reasons why predators come into a yard and create conflict is because they can find regular food available,” she says.

In the end, however, Brown says that residents need not be overly concerned about any of these species. “You can still go for walks in the woods and walk your dogs at night and do whatever else you usually do,” he says. “Keep in mind that the rest of New England has been coexisting with these animals for a long time. People in New Hampshire don’t stay indoors because of them. We’ll all do just fine.”

 

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