HOOVER, S.D. — Northern Butte County is barren, sparsely populated and good bobcat country.
On any given day, Eric Ness can be found checking his cage traps to see if any of the elusive cats are inside.
Ness, a graduate student at South Dakota State University, began a two-year study of bobcats in the prairies of western South Dakota for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department.
“They are curious on harvest rate and the population,” Ness said.
Ness began trapping in late summer around Hoover.
Using cage traps he hoped to capture a large number of bobcats, but things started slow for the novice trapper. He enlisted the guidance of state trappers who said he was in good bobcat country and his sets looked good.
“But the bobcats here are so rare,” Ness said. “They don’t travel much, so you really have to find where they hang out. It’s been so dry that I haven’t been able to find much sign or tracks or scat.”
There is a short bobcat trapping and hunting season that begins in mid-December and ends in February. During the 2011-2012 season 713 bobcats were killed statewide with the largest numbers coming from: 41 in Butte County; 51 in Meade County; and 85 in Harding County, according to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. The vast majority of the bobcats were trapped.
After a month of running his trap line with no bobcats in his traps, he took to the air to locate better habitat for the bobcats.
He found a large stock pond and ravines with good cover for grouse and rabbits, prey species for bobcats.
“What I’ve been trying to find is areas they would like to be in,” he said.
He placed his 23 traps throughout the area, often times placing two traps at one location in hopes of trapping a female and her young.
Finally he saw two eyes staring back at him from inside a trap.
“I caught him by a little cedar tree,” Ness said. “He was a 23-pound male, a very good looking cat, with no fleas, no ticks and no parasites.”
Ness and another GF&P biologist conducted fieldwork on the bobcat and fitted him with a radio collar.
But unfortunately days later, the signal from the bobcat’s collar disappeared.
“It could have malfunctioned, the cat could have been hiding in culvert or, since it was a young male, it could have traveled out of the area,” Ness said.
He has expanded his trap line ever since, and what once took him a couple hours to check, now takes him most of the day.
Next week he will begin a new trap line near Union Center in Meade County.
Ness said collaring bobcats will allow him to see what type of terrain they prefer, to see movement patterns and even will indicate if one of the animals has died so biologists can determine how they died. Additionally the bobcats will be part of a mark and recapture study. Biologists are able to estimate the population when they look at the number of marked or collared animals killed versus the non-marked animals. Ness said his study is slated to last two years and with functioning collars, data could be collected for another few years after that.
Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, http://www.bhpioneer.com