California and a Bobcat

Happy Mother's Day! I don't know about you, but my mom has been there for every tear, giggle, and adventure in my life, particularly in the last few years when I realized I wanted to become a wildlife biologist (unfortunately for her, this still includes me chasing her with the lizards and frogs I catch, just like when I was five years old). Thanks, mom!

Greetings from California! This girl is perching on the west coast (for the first time, I might add)! I am super stoked to start the summer field season on the Sierra Nevada Carnivore Monitoring Project. I'm really looking forward to brushing up on old skills and learning new ones, such as working with track plates and learning more about fishers and martens. I'm currently in a little town called Barstow, which is about 300 miles from our destination in Shaver Lake. Mark and I broke up the drive from TX to CA with a stop in the Texas Panhandle. We have had one hell of a trip. It's our third cross-country trip together and my seventh overall, and by far the best. We had the treat of watching a wild bobcat, with time to ruminate over the experience.

On our way through the beautiful Texas Panhandle, we spotted the bobcat in the middle of a horse pasture. With private pasture land for miles, I was surprised to see a bobcat in such open terrain (more due to my experience of bobcats preferring montane forests rather than the abnormality of the behavior, though with such little cover, I was still impressed). At first we thought it was a grey fox, and then a coyote. As we pulled a u-turn, I was bursting with excitement when Mark realized it was a bobcat (actually, I believe I let out a few expletives to illustrate said excitement). The cat had something in it's mouth, and when we came to a stop about one hundred feet away we saw it was a prairie dog. We've all seen episodes of National Geographic and witnessed the raw audacity of predation second-hand, and while we didn't witness the chase, I don't think I have words for the short moment that this bobcat calmly forced the last breath from his prey. Once he caught his breath and realized we weren't threatening or particularly interesting, he began to enjoy his hard-earned meal. For almost thirty minutes we watched what we estimated to be an older male (based on size and location) eat, alternating between the sound of crunching bones and an occasional cool glance in our direction. We started the truck and pulled forward once when a curious and hungry horse galloped in our direction- we didn't want our cat to lose his meal. Once the horse angrily galloped off in the opposite direction, we returned to our post, where I quietly belly-crawled a few yards closer for some more photos. Here are my favorites:

When the cat decided it was time to go,  we were shocked to discover that his front left leg was broken at the 'elbow.' Likely the result of a car strike, missed gun shot, or possibly a trap (farmers don't like bobcats, but they control prairie dog numbers, which destroy pastures), his chances of survival are slim. He looked on the thin side, yet it is one hell of a predator that can successfully hunt a prairie dog in an open pasture. While a car strike is often uncontrollable, we discussed the human threat to carnivores. Sadly, the issue is all too common with predators: farmers, hunters, and anti-carnivore enthusiasts try to control carnivore populations, legally as well as illegally, and often harm incidental captures or escaped targets with their methods. While hunting and trapping is part of the North American model of conservation, our country is currently in the middle of an ant-carnivore craze, and with the bobcat having no hunting or trapping restrictions in Texas, along with (for some) a lack of understanding of the benefit of carnivores (in this case, helping to prevent the destruction of pasture), this cat is going to have a hard time. The experience was bittersweet, and all we can do as biologists and conservationists is work with the community to ensure prosperity for four legged and two legged creatures alike. 

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