Yellowstone bobcats

A bobcat pads its way along the Madison River in 2016. A new study argues the economic value of the bobcat for ecotourism is cause to reform bobcat trapping regulations.

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.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, or @JHNGenviro.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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(5) comments

Glenn Graham

Hi Bryce Hemming - how do you know there are plenty of bobcats? No one counts them, so no one knows. And what exactly do you mean by follow the money? Ignorant nonsense. The huge majority oppose trapping because it produces minimal revenue compared to tourism, as the article states. But mostly we oppose it because it's cruel, archaic and morally wrong. And most of all, trappers have no right to kill animals just because they like to. They and you are living in the wrong century.

Brice Hemming

These people could care a less about what is good for our wildlife. This all about human control. Look at Lisa comment typical uneducated ranting against trapping. OMG traps everywhere and other fear mongering nonsense. Funny for 500 years bobcat have been trapped and we still have plenty of bobcats must be a miracle. Lisa wants to play God and tell people all animals are special, magical, talking cartoons characters never to be touched.
If people want to just take pictures of bobcat with no traps go to Yellowstone this whole argument is immature at best.
Wonder which anti human group is paying Lisa for her propaganda. Follow the money.

Robert Wharff

The facts remain: in Wyoming, both the non-consumptive users and trappers were able to co-exist and contribute to Wyoming's economy.
The article was clearly written from the point of view that trapping isn't good, especially given who the authors were and knowing what goals they possess.
We can and do have wildlife which are valued by a very diverse group of people. There is room for all but some desire to isolate one group or another.
Working together benefits all wildlife

Lisa Robertson

Bob, Yes, there certainly should be room for all of us, but presently, there is not. Traps cover our landscapes everywhere the public recreates except the National Parks and the Elk Refuge. They are legal directly on trails, in almost any size, and in unlimited numbers throughout the year. If domestic animals or non-target animals (including an endangered species) are caught in one of these steel contraptions, the trapper is unaccountable. Basically, regulations allow anyone to toss a trap out there for $44, catch any animal that walks by, and then is unaccountable for any harm he causes to those thousands of non-targets in our state each season.

If you believe working together benefits wildlife, then our archaic trapping regulations should reflect that statement. Currently, our wildlife managers have chosen to support the "slippery slope" rule, giving an inch will result in a mile. This has been stated in public repeatedly. Yes, working together benefits all wildlife. But actions speak louder than words. Meanwhile, Wyoming is being judged by its lack of action, and our persecuted non-game animals and other non-target animals suffer immeasurably.

Wyoming’s wildlife management is not keeping pace with our modern society’s views of the intrinsic value of our wildlife. Programs and agencies need to transform to engage and serve broader constituencies.

Mark Elbroch

This article was not meant to be a criticism of Wyoming's management in particular, but management across the bobcat's range. WY Game and Fish Staff Biologist Steve Tessmann makes good points--the fact that WY uses rabbit data to assess bobcats is encouraging--not a great method by any means, but its something, and much more than many states attempt with regards to assessing bobcat numbers. Nevertheless bobcat harvest does seem particularly correlated with license sales--as licenses increased, harvest dipped. Was it by chance that rabbits dipped then too? We cannot know because WY does not monitor bobcats, and that's the point of the article. Steve Tessman was also right to criticize the fact that trapper gas and expenses were not included, and it should have been. Probably wouldn't have changed anything as not all the expenses tallied by all tourists and photographers that made the trip were included either, and the disparity between the value of a bobcat in ecotourism and trapping may have actually been much larger than reported.

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