The North American bobcat, famous for its reclusive nature, is front and center in a contentious hunting debate in New Hampshire that has divided animal rights activists, hunters, and state regulators alike.
Hunting and trapping of bobcats has been forbidden in New Hampshire since 1989, but in February the state’s Fish and Game Department narrowly approved a plan to allow as many as 50 bobcats, whose population has been growing, to be killed or trapped each year. On Friday, the plan, which has sparked emotional reactions on both sides, comes before a legislative committee at the State House in Concord.
Supporters say the elusive, nocturnal predator has become abundant enough to allow hunting on a limited scale. But the plan has drawn an outcry of opposition, unusual in a state with a pro-hunting reputation.
Vincent Greco, a member of the fish and game commission, said he voted against the proposal in light of the intense public opposition. Hundreds of animal rights activists and conservationists have called and written the board to voice their displeasure with the idea, he and other members said.
“It’s not that I feel that taking 50 cats would disrupt the population, it was a small amount,” Greco said. “But the public opinion, and the time people put into opposing [the measure], much outweighed those in favor.”
Some residents were so upset that they threatened to close their land to fishing, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing, Greco said.
“This could cause irreparable damage to the Fish and Game Department and to our image,” Greco said.
Commission member Todd Baldwin, who supports the hunting proposal, said the bobcat population has rebounded since the state imposed a hunting moratorium more than 25 years ago. Allowing limited bobcat hunting would also help state researchers, who have wanted more information on the felines for years.
The New England bobcat typically grows up to 20 pounds, eats mostly rabbits and hares, and sports a brown and grey speckled coat. Bobcats are the most widely distributed cat species in North America.
The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, which first proposed the hunt, “has been charged with managing wildlife in New Hampshire, and they’ve got the expertise,” Baldwin said. “I think we need to back them.”
Glenn Normandeau, executive director of the Fish and Game Department, said he has been taken aback by the fierce opposition to the plan, which began years ago with a study that suggested that more than 75 bobcats could be safely harvested without disrupting the current population.
“The bobcat population was never endangered, and its never been a listed protected species for the federal government,” Normandeau said. “People are acting like this is cruel and unusual punishment, but the fact is that nature itself is pretty cruel to these critters at the end of the day.”
Normandeau, who said 38 states allow bobcat hunting, expects the legislative committee to raise some objections to the plan, which would force the commission to make revisions. He expects a large crowd at Friday’s hearing.
“I think we could have taken away people’s Social Security and wouldn’t have this big of a turnout,” he said.
As of Thursday, an online petition against the hunt had more than 75,000 signatures.
Gwen Donovan, who lives in Meredith, N.H., said there is no need to cull the bobcat population, and that trapping bobcats ensures that the animals “starve, thirst and die a slow death waiting for the hunter to arrive.”
“This is unnecessary and inhuman,” she said.
Next week at Concord Public Library, opponents are gathering to watch a documentary called “Protect the Bobcat: A New Hampshire Wildlife Story.” The movie, which has been posted online, begins with a montage that implores viewers to “allow the bobcat to live free and die free in New Hampshire.”
But Baldwin, the commission member, dismissed such “emotionally charged” views as irrational.
“People who talk emotionally and get all riled up . . . they really don’t know anything about life in the woods,” Baldwin said. “I have a cat here in my house that looks like a bobcat, and when it goes outside, it’s a predator by nature.”Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH