Two winters back the Madison River in western Yellowstone became a mecca for lensmen and wildlife lovers hoping to catch a glimpse of a bobcat that frequented the shorelines.
The elusive, mid-size carnivore was drawn to waterfowl that flocked to the river’s open waters. But it itself became a steady draw for ecotourists, who opened up their pocketbooks to the tune of an estimated $156,000 that winter in food, travel and lodging. Some of the professional photographers who lucked out in the search for the Madison bobcat turned a nice profit, selling their images for an average of $36,000.
Those numbers come from a new study, “Contrasting bobcat values,” which makes the case that bobcat trapping regulations need reform to recognize the nonconsumptive economic value of the species. The paper’s author, Jackson resident and biologist Mark Elbroch, makes the case that modern bobcat management is incongruent with the tenets of a bedrock hunting and fishing doctrine: the North American Wildlife Conservation Model.
“It very clearly states in the model that we do not support any exploitation of wildlife for monetary value, and then it says that trapping is OK because it’s well managed,” Elbroch said. “We really don’t monitor these populations at all, so how can we argue that they’re well managed?”
Elbroch’s study, co-authored by Jackson Hole trapping reform advocates Lisa Robertson and Kristin Combs, was published this month by the academic journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
The study assigns an economic value of $308,105 for the single Yellowstone bobcat in the 2015-16 winter, contrasted with the value of $315 per bobcat trapped or hunted in Wyoming. The latter figure coupled trapping license revenue and the sale of bobcat pelts.
The researchers and advocates argued for three regulations across the North American landscape: mandatory reporting for bobcats legally killed, range-wide seasonal bag limits based on abundance data, and bobcat management in all states as either a furbearer or game species that have some level of protection.
Bobcat harvest, in Elbroch’s view, should be capped to ensure ecotourists have an opportunity to view animals and also so that they remain abundant enough to fulfill their ecological role on the landscape.
In Wyoming bobcats are managed as a furbearer species that can be trapped without limit during an open season that runs from Nov. 15 to March 1. Reporting is mandatory, and an average of about 1,700 bobcats are trapped annually by about 350 people licensed to run traplines in the Equality State, Wyoming Game and Fish Department documents show.
Game and Fish Staff Biologist Steve Tessmann didn’t buy the argument that bobcats are a poorly monitored species managed in a way that doesn’t recognize ecotourism.
“The value of bobcats to ecotourists is taken into account by managing bobcats on a sustainable basis,” he said, “as they’ve been managed for 60, 70 years.
“There will always be bobcats to trap, and there will always be bobcats to observe for people who want to observe them,” he said. “Just because somebody traps a bobcat doesn’t mean that the particular bobcat was a bobcat that was going to be viewed by a tourist and is no longer available for viewing.”
Populations of bobcats are no longer estimated, Tessmann said, but their relative abundance is known by keeping tabs on trapper kills and the amount of trapping effort expended. Numbers, he said, tend to bounce around a lot and are limited more by available prey than trapping mortality.
“We do a regression analysis that shows that population trends correlate with rabbit harvest,” Tessmann said, “which is an estimate of rabbit abundance.”
Even though bobcat trapping in Wyoming is not capped, Tessmann argued that the harvest is regulated by the law of diminishing returns. When bobcat populations sag, trapping interest also falls, he said, allowing populations to rebound.
Tessmann also took issue with some of the assumptions in the Biodiversity and Conservation journal article. Money that trappers spend on travel and equipment weren’t accounted for, he said.
“In reality the average consumptive return per bobcat trapped is much higher than the article estimates,” Tessmann said.