Tomorrow is the last day of the ten day hitch. We are trapping and tracking bobcats in Flathead National Forest in Montana, and the study site encompasses 250,000 acres. Roberta Newbury (Bobbie) has two cats left to trap in order to retrieve their GPS radio collars, which unfortunately failed and did not drop off like they were supposed to in October. She waited until bears went into hibernation to begin trapping, and I'm here for February as part of her field crew to chase cats and figure out what they're up to. This week has been extremely busy for the bobcats; we have caught, almost caught, and missed several animals.
After my experience with M1 last week, I was eager for another cat, and hopefully one we could process (specifically, M5 and M6, who are still attached to GPS collars). The same day we caught M1 for the first time, we missed who we think is M3, an older male Bobbie finally trapped in January and removed his collar. He is an enormous cat, weighing in at 32 lbs, and a seasoned male with a wily ability to break out of traps. When Bobbie was trapping cats to radio collar them in Winter 2010, M3 busted out of a trap once before she trapped him a second time; however, he was halfway out of the trap when she found him, stuck between two layers of fencing and working hard to tear the trap to pieces. Last week, we again saw his handiwork: a small hole at the base of the trap he had worked over for maybe an hour to escape the have-a-heart style trap. I imagine his gums were sore from working the metal fencing, but then again, bobcats are hardy, and M3 did it again earlier this week, so he must be in top shape. His nickname is Houdini because he vanishes from traps, but when he has, he hasn't taken the meat with him. My guess is he's just a little too stressed when that door slams shut to hang out for long; the PhD lady might come back and stick him again or put another necklace on him (always good when wildlife is wary of humans). Also on the line up of bobcats this week was M2, a young male entering his third year. When Bobbie collared him last winter, he was a little guy and very scared of her. After catching him a few more times last year, she noticed his transformation as he became braver, depicting that classic bobcat attitude. When we trapped him at the end of last week, I was so excited, because he was so much bigger than the pictures I'd seen from summer! And he was unhappy to see us, too, growling and bluffing us with his snarls as he inched forward. We let him go.
M2 is not as happy as I am.
Presumably both M2 and M3 have raided our traps this week; some of the trap doors froze with some wet snowfall early this week, and the only evidence we have are perfect little bobcat prints in the trap, and the meat pilfered. Tricky!
The most exciting part of this week was MUNK. MUNK is the unknown male bobcat Bobbie and Jodi have trapped three times, but not anesthetized for samples prior to Monday (one time, the drug froze!). I was not the only one ecstatic to see him. For me, MUNK is the first bobcat I've ever touched. MUNK, once processed, is M7, more appropriately the 007 bobcat. Akin to James Bond, this cat is all attitude. I've never seen anything so ferocious. MUNK, absolutely furious with our presence, put up a nearly half hour fight with the four of us before we could even get the needle near his haunches to administer the temporary anesthetic. I don't think I've ever seen a ninja movie where any character can keep an eye on four people at once the way this cat did. Stressing an animal is never the goal, but MUNK was definitely over stimulated as we tried to maneuver about the trap and distract him enough for one person to sneak the needle into his muscle. Not easy on anyone, especially a bobcat with a huge superiority complex. We all breathed a sigh of relief when I managed to inject most of the drug, and we backed off to wait for the cat to go under.
What an assumption.
We figured it was human error the first time we gave him a booster, that when he backflipped at the last of the injection I had missed the last cc's. He just wasn't going down. The second time Mark gave him a carefully measured booster, we were surprised but figured he was over stimulated. We hid behind the snowmobiles so he would stop staring at us. The third time Bobbie gave him a booster, however, it was clear that this bobcat had enough attitude coursing through his veins to burn through not only our souls with his fiery stare, but the telazol as well. Finally, however, MUNK went down. Sorda. Bobbie just gave up and scruffed the semi-anesthetized cat and brought him up the hill for us to begin working with.
Briefly, Bobbie's research focuses on the movements and daily energy requirements of bobcats (Lynx rufus) in a deep snow environment in northwestern Montana; field data will be used to model bobcat movements, energy balance, and home range dynamics to better inform bobcat management and elucidate potential interaction with the federally threatened lynx in Montana. With hair samples, skin biopsies, and body measurements of resident animals in her study site, including animal without radio collars (such as MUNK), she can better assess the population with identified individuals. Collecting this data includes beginning with an anesthetized cat; I held him down while the drug finally kicked in. We use heated pads to maintain body temperature, as the anesthetic lowers body temperature. Eye drops keep eyes lubricated since blinking is stopped under the drug's influence. MUNK was weighed, measured in length, girth, height, etc, and after we took a skin biopsy of the ear, a metal ID tag was placed in his ear. How long this remains in place remains up to the animal's rambunctiousness, but it enables us to identify him should we catch him again (surprise, we caught him again yesterday in the same trap!). While this cat is an absolute terror, a formidable predator of solid muscle with dangerous teeth and lightning quick claws, he is absolutely one of the most beautiful cats I have ever seen. The dense undercoat of the bobcat, overlaid with fine, long hairs provide perfect insulation for this animal in the harsh environment. Everyone on the field crew is easily mesmerized with the luxury of the coat, and I relished the moments with him in my lap as I stroked his fur and marveled over the size of his paws (as large as the palm of my hand). Careful to avoid putting my face near his (the cats are stoned out of their minds, but still mildly aware), I got some funny pics with the guy:
MUNK, or M7, aka 007, not looking at the camera
Passing an anesthetized 007 to Mark.
This process, minus the war of trying to anesthetize this particular cat, takes all of twenty minutes, and afterward MUNK was placed back into the trap to recuperate for a few hours. The cats need to be 100% aware before released, as they would be vulnerable to other predators otherwise. We came back to a bobcat who had the munchies: MUNK was chowing down on the deer leg that had lured him into the trap in the first place, and he refused to leave when we opened the door. Clearly, he wasn't taking freedom without a full belly, and he was rather possessive over the meat when Bobbie and I edged closer for some good photos (thank goodness for a good zoom lens!). We left him to his own devices, and when we came back by on the snowmobiles, he had gone about his way.
Tomorrow we close traps. We've seen M1 twice, MUNK twice, lost M3 twice, and caught M2 once and possibly lost meat to him another time. I'm learning these cats' habits and learning to identify their tracks in the snow (coyotes look similar). In addition to the sneaky ermines and tree squirrels stealing the meat in the traps, there are bobcats in these mountains. It's just a matter of time before we catch some more. Although we don't need to see MUNK again, I'm sure we will... and I can't wait.