Trapping Bobcats

In light of the new and exciting information that two of our bobcats were not dead, we have instead had to deal with two collars failing instead of bobcats... meaning that we have to trap two bobcats in 250,000 acres of national forest in order to remove and replace said collars. Where is an easy button when you need it?! Luckily (relatively speaking, that is), we've been able to follow the bobcats via telemetry to get an idea of their whereabouts. After following M6 around for three days on foot, the obvious decision from that point onward was to only set a trap when we determined what area the cat was hanging out in. The collars send a retrieval signal (which sounds dangerously like a mortality signal... thanks fine print manual) 24/7 once the collar battery fails, so really we only have a small window of time to collect the collar. If the battery dies completely, no more signal and our cat is as unknown as it was before being collared.

For the past few weeks we've been setting and checking traps. Three of the six traps set were collapsible, similar to the have-a-heart design and non-fatal. The other three were much larger, weighing almost forty pounds and hand-built by Bobbie. The traps are double-wired, and this past winter one of her bobcats chewed through the wire. These traps take quite a beating, as the cats basically ping-pong about inside the trap once the gate slams shut. In winter, when the bears were hibernating, Bobbie used meat as a lure. One bobcat, and the largest of the collared cats, was caught twelve times this past winter because he learned that Bobbie wasn't going to hurt him and that he could get a free meal each time he went into the trap. In one case, this cat ate almost fifteen pounds of deer meat in a night! The cat weighs thirty five pounds (which is rather large for a bobcat)! That would be like me eating fifty pounds of meat... okay, I'm totally lying about my weight, but that's a lot of food. Now that it's summer, the bears are out and about, and meat in a trap is no longer an option. Bears are more opportunistically carnivorous, but they do enjoy a bit (or a lot) of meat now and then. Since we don't have any bear-proof traps, using meat would mean certain death for the traps, a danger to us, and no bobcat in our traps. We decided to trap M5 first, and instead of meat used the always delightful scent lures. These little glass bottles contain all that is disgusting to the human nose, and all of it is au naturale. Be it skunk musk, bobcat scent glands, salmon oil, or the mysterious lure No. 2 (very popular amongst cats), a drop rubbed on the base of a tree- bobcat height- will attract all sorts of wildlife just dying to get a better whiff. Once we set traps, I traipsed about animal trails making a scent trail for our nearby bobcat to follow. Curiosity always killed the cat, so the scent lures are intended to lead the animal within site of the trap. We also hung blank CD's from tree branches to attract the curious cats ("oooooh, shinyyyy"), and we used salmon oil only inside the trap to provide incentive to enter the trap. Should the animal apply pressure with his paw, the door slams and the cat is secure until we arrive. The traps were covered with branches to shield the animal from weather or human eye, and we began to check the traps every day.

Checking for traps is tedious and always a waiting game. The animal may move from the area, be too wary of the trap, or wait several days before considering approaching the foreign object. Or, if he's been trapped before, like ours, he could be trap shy. Since it's summer, we've had to be extremely careful of bears being in or around the traps when we approach them. I was nervous on the first day checking traps! I felt a little like Chuck Norris with my hand on the trigger of my bear spray as we climbed into the trees toward traps. All of my bear experiences thus far have been from either the truck or with lots of trees between us with me yelling "bad bear!" Day after day, however, the traps have been empty. We were extra careful in setting the traps: we wired them to trees so nothing could carry them off; we hid them from roads but in areas open enough that we might see anything dangerous as we approached; and most importantly, we did not get any of the scent lures on our hands! Still, wildlife is wild and nothing is predictable.

The day we set our fourth trap, there was either a moose or a bear nearby in the woods interested in our work, though lots of yelling rendered the stranger silent. Walking down animal trails can be quite unnerving since everything uses them. I have substantially freaked myself out while setting traps because I've walked quite a bit away from Bobbie to mark trails, where strangers lurk. Thinking like a bobcat requires a lower sense of balance, and being low to the ground and having the hairs on the back of your neck stand up is truly a wild feeling! Twice I very seriously felt like something was watching me, and not a hare or a squirrel. Could have been a mountain lion, a baby moose, or a bear. This day, and one other, I'm comfortable not knowing. After returning from the trail and humming quite loudly to myself, I suddenly came face to face with a grouse. The silly little bird had somehow gotten between Bobbie and I undetected and was stupidly walking about like the chickens I grew up laughing at. To make a very long story short, we ended up chasing that grouse (what bear wants to eat a grouse?), and I am so happy that no one was there to film it, because the grouse won 2:1. We did, however, use some donated feathers for our trap, and confirmed with the squirrels that we are insane with our hysterical laughter and tripping over trees. This very trap was to hold some excitement in the coming days.

I am so angry that I was not actually here for this. This past Saturday was the first and only day all season I have missed. I woke with a terrible migraine and it rendered me totally useless. Traps have to be checked, so Bobbie ventured out this past weekend to check traps. When she got to the trap with the grouse feathers, she noticed the trap door was closed. Checking for M5's signal and not finding it, she assumed there was another bobcat in the trap, as all was silent. The trap was well covered so she could see nothing as she approached the trap. Bobbie was ten feet from the trap when it exploded into the air, leaping from the ground as if alive and being thrown over the saplings. Inside the larger trap burst a very frantic black bear, blasting at lightning speed past Bobbie and off into the trees, hollering the whole time like a cub though it was a young adult. Bobbie says she basically levitated back to the truck, only emerging to check out the trap after she had relearned how to breath from inside the vehicle. When we both returned the next day to collect the trap, I could see where the bear had broken through both sets of wire as well as snapping the heavy pvc like a twig. Good thing he was the more frightened of the two! We are fairly certain it was the yearling cub we saw at the beginning of July (the one standing up in the picture in a previous posting). Either way, it most certainly was not a bobcat, and I most certainly am still disgruntled that I missed the excitement!

To date, we have still not trapped either of the sneaksy, tricksy little cats. However, the Montana field season has been nothing short of exhilarating!