Researchers follow bobcat mothers and their spring kittens

AMES, Iowa -- Starting this week, researchers from Iowa State University and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources will monitor the comings and goings of eight bobcat mothers in south central Iowa.

The bobcats have been captured, studied and fitted with radio collars. A crew based in a research station at Red Haw State Park near Chariton uses radio telemetry to monitor bobcats in eight Iowa counties (Warren, Marion, Clarke, Lucas, Monroe, Decatur, Wayne and Appanoose).

The tracking is part of an ongoing Iowa State study funded by a $228,790 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The study began in 2003. William Clark, a professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology, expects the study to last another two to three years.

Clark said researchers' preliminary conclusions include:

  • Iowa's bobcat population is healthy and probably expanding.
  • There are probably more bobcats in Iowa than researchers expected.

But he also said there are a lot of questions yet to be answered:

  • How will bobcats persist in Iowa's fragmented landscape of farms, forests, pastures and prairies?
  • What are the genetic and demographic characteristics of Iowa bobcats?
  • How do bobcats disperse across Iowa's landscape?

The researchers' priority over the next four months will be to keep close tabs on eight adult female bobcats as their litters are born. Normally, the field crew locates all 32 bobcats in the study at least twice a week, said Stephanie Koehler, a graduate student from Glen Ullin, N.D. who's doing bobcat research for her master's degree. Now they'll also be finding eight adult females once a week and recording their exact location every 20 minutes for six hours.

If there's not much movement, a mother is probably in a den with her litter, Koehler said. The researchers will then identify the kind of habitat the mother picked for her den. They'll continue to monitor the mothers as they resume activity outside the den.

Todd Gosselink, a natural resources biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resource who's working with the research project, said this is a unique time of year for bobcats. They're typically solitary creatures. But he said mothers and kittens develop a strong bond and stay close until the kittens move on next spring.

Bobcat range has historically covered most of the lower 48 states. But as settlers plowed Iowa's prairie, Clark said the state's bobcat population dropped, though he thinks some bobcats have always been in the state. They have been listed as endangered and threatened species in Iowa but were removed from that list in 2003. They are still protected by the state with no hunting or possession allowed.