Bobcat sightings on rise at Lake Tahoe
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Photographs have been flowing into the Tribune email featuring numerous bobcats that have been spotted around the region, leading us to wonder if that’s because there are more bobcats in the area than in previous years.
According to the Smithsonian, bobcats are a type of lynx, although much smaller and less suited to the snow than the other three types of lynx. Bobcats have short, pointy dark tufts of hair on the tops of their ears and fluffy tufts of hair on their cheeks and have short, bobbed tails.
They are found all over North America, including Lake Tahoe. They are classified as least concern but it seems this year, there is an increase in sightings.
Will Richardson, co-founder and CEO for Tahoe Institute of Natural Science said the apparent rise in bobcat observations is due to a number of factors, including social media, digital images and the pandemic.
“We’re super-connected now, and sharing reports of sightings and images across platforms is super easy. Everybody has a great camera on their phone, and doorbell and security cameras have proliferated lately as well,” Richardson said. “In 2020, a huge proportion of Tahoe folks sat at home and looked out their windows. Bird-feeder sales skyrocketed. This established curiosity, awareness, and habit, but also, a lot of folks are still working remotely.”
Even with these factors in mind, Richardson does believe there has also been an increase in bobcat populations.
“I do suspect the numbers have likely increased, as I too have seen more bobcats lately,” Richardson said. “In fact, bobcat numbers are believed to be increasing across nearly all of North America (with the exceptions of Florida and Delaware) since the late 1990s. But locally I think the increase in Nuttall’s Cottontails over the last two decades would surely be a major contributing factor.”
He added that when the USDA Forest Service published the Lake Tahoe Watershed Assessment in 2000, they suggested that cottontails were a candidate for special conservation concern in Tahoe and “vulnerable due to small population size, declining population, and/or contracted range.”
“About the time this two-volume overview was being printed, cottontails were already beginning their expansion out of the rocky, high-elevation sage habitats to which they had been largely restricted, and began spreading across the wildland-urban interface of both North and South Lake,” Richardson said. “Within 8-10 years they’d reached the western corners of the Tahoe basin and started heading south along the West Shore. In 2016 they closed the loop at Emerald Bay.”
Around the same time, and likely related to this population boom, Gray Foxes made an appearance in Tahoe for the first time ever in 2005.
“Another possibility worth considering is that these rabbits and other prey bringing the cats into the wildland-urban interface may be leading to bobcats that are more habituated to people, more tame, and thus more observable/photographable,” Richardson said.
Which leads us to ask, why has the rabbit population boomed.
“We don’t know, but we’ve been trying to figure that out retroactively. I’m still trying to find folks along the East Shore (Galena, Zephyr, etc.) that have lived here long enough and can tell me with conviction whether or not they had cottontails in their yards/neighborhood prior to 2000,” Richardson said.
There haven’t been studies done locally to determine the impact the rise in bobcats could have on the ecosystem, although they have been studied elsewhere.
“As one of the most widespread, adaptable, and successful predators in North America, how they interact with their local environment differs widely from system to system,” Richardson said.
So what is the big picture take away from the increased population?
“1. Given a chance, nature finds a way,” Richardson said. “2. Keep looking out those windows, and keep your camera handy!”
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