California Bobcats Will Avoid Cecil’s Fate Thanks to New Baiting Ban
California bobcats are smaller and more abundant than the threatened lions of Africa.
But the native North American predators will be spared the fate of Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, now that California has become the first state in the nation to ban commercial and sport bobcat trapping.
The public largely ignored California’s centuries-old legal bobcat hunting until 2013, when reports surfaced that the population in the community of Joshua Tree—just outside the national park boundaries—was disappearing.
It emerged that bobcat hunters—in a practice similar to that employed by the now-infamous Minnesota dentist to lure Cecil out of a protected park and turn him into a game trophy—were using scent pheromones and even battery-powered fake birds to entice bobcats beyond the park border, then killing them for their fur pelts.
One commercial trapper working on private land baited and killed 50 Joshua Tree bobcats in one year alone, according to the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, effectively eliminating the population from a 100-square-mile area just outside the park. While losses like these have not threatened the species’ health or survival statewide, concentrated killing can devastate regional populations beyond recovery, removing an important predator from local and regional ecosystems.
The California hunt in recent years fed increasing demand for the diminutive, 20-pound cat’s fur in China, Russia, and other countries, where one white-bellied bobcat pelt can sell for $200 to $600.
While the state legislature reined in the bobcat hunt in 2013, the law left 40 percent of state-owned land available to licensed hunters. But with only about 100 commercial bobcat trappers working in California, the commission’s 3–2 vote on Wednesday reflected its uncertainty that revenues from sales of $1,325 bobcat hunting licenses, as well as tagging fees of $35 per pelt, would be enough to cover the costs of regulating the hunt.
“The failure by the trappers’ association to show that they could adequately pay for the trapping program was one problem,” said Jean Su, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But the bigger issue was the fundamental shift that has taken place in how we, as people, are viewing wildlife.”
That shift, she said, was evident in how the commission approached its decision. Instead of requiring conservationists to show scientifically that hunting the bobcats would be harmful to the species or the environment, they laid the onus on bobcat trappers to show that trapping the species would not be harmful.
“Before we make a decision to allow destruction of a natural resource, we should have the science to support that as a practice,” Commissioner Anthony Williams said during the Wednesday public hearing. “I don’t think that burden has been met.”
Bobcat-trapping totals in California have diminished in the past 35 years: Nearly 28,000 cats were killed in 1978, compared with 1,639 in 2013. But the state’s last bobcat population census was made 36 years ago, leaving both commissioners and trappers in the dark about how commercial hunting has affected the population.
“The trappers argue that without the science, you keep everything status quo, keep trapping bobcats. Our argument is the flip side of that,” Su said. “Without the science, you really can’t have a limited take. It’s like having a bank account, and you have no idea how much is in the account, and you just go start spending money.”
Ju said more than 25,000 letters representing more than 1 million Californians were sent to the commission calling for the ban.
“What happened to Cecil is absolutely what was happening to these bobcats,” Su said. “The public’s involvement in this shows people are not seeing wildlife as a commodity—that’s a minority view now.”