Feeding Russia's and China's Fur Fixation, American Trappers Make a Killing with Bobcat Pelts

International trade is fueling California’s bobcat fur demand, but pressure from conservation and citizen groups is pushing the state to look at an all-out prohibition on commercial bobcat trapping.

(Photo: Sebastian Kennerknecht/Getty Images)

Apr 16, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The original Bobcat Protection Act of 2013 was supposed to quash California’s commercial bobcat trapping trade.

The act came about after it was discovered that trappers were ambushing bobcats on private land and in areas just outside Joshua Tree National Park. The public outcry played a role in pressuring the state to move quickly on the issue.

But as things often go in politics, by the time Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill, it had been workshopped into an amended semi-ban on bobcat trapping—creating no-trapping zones around national parks and wildlife refuges but allowing it elsewhere. In other words, the trapping problem near Joshua Tree had been solved, but much of the rest of the state was still fair game.

That’s allowed commercial trappers to keep making a pretty penny selling pelts overseas, thanks in part to growing demand in China and Russia. Today, bobcat pelts are fetching between $200 to $600 for just one clean, white belly fur hide—quite an increase from the $78 a bobcat pelt fetched as recently as 2009.

Those rising pelt prices fueled a 50 percent increase in California bobcats killed in 2012 compared with the previous year, resulting in 1,813 bobcats taken from the wild.

Now only a year and a half after the passage of the bill, wildlife officials are once again getting an earful from the public, with conservation groups and citizens calling for the full ban to be instated—and an end to the pelt trade for one of the last U.S.-based species of wildcat still for sale on the international market.

At a state Fish and Game Commission meeting last week, officials reviewed their options and heard from the public on the bill: Around 40 people spoke in support of a total ban, with only four members speaking against it.

“Right now, the fate of bobcats is tied to the rise and fall of its fur prices in the international market, instead of a science-based plan,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel for the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity.

Still, the whole operation might have gone unnoticed and unchecked if it hadn’t been for the near decimation of the species in the bobcat-loving community near Joshua Tree.

“We had bobcats coming in and out of people’s yards every day—people had named them,” explained Cummings, who lives in Joshua Tree. “Then very quickly, they started to disappear.”

The high desert community town lies on the border of the national park; trappers were found to be lining the boundary with wire cages tricked out with bobcat lures, cat toys, and potent scent attractants.

“When we found out about the trapping, we suddenly realized where all of the bobcats had gone,” Cummings said.

Bobcats are widespread in the United States, with established populations in 47 of the Lower 48. Most states still allow hunting or trapping of bobcats in some form but often set limits on how many an individual trapper can catch in a given year.

But in California, there are no bag limits; from November through January, it’s open season on the bobcat. One trapper out of Barstow has gained a reputation for taking more than 100 bobcats every year. In Joshua Tree, Cummings said a local commercial trapper snagged 50 bobcats in 2012, the year the community started to noticed a dearth of bobcats in the area. While 50 fewer bobcats might not be devastating to the species’ overall health, Cummins thinks the concentrated killings can be regionally detrimental.

“Around Joshua Tree, it’s estimated there is about one bobcat for every two square miles of territory,” Cummings said. “That means he wiped out the bobcat population in about a 100-square-mile radius just outside of a national park.”

Following that 2012 discovery and the concurrent outrage, state officials moved to ban the trade outright, but instead, they got a ban on trapping near wildlife refuges, parks, and all private property.

Now, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife officers are trying to figure out how to enforce trap boundaries around the state’s 300 parks and wildlife areas—an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.

The Bobcat Protection Act in its current form also calls for the cost of the trapping program—which includes monitoring and enforcement—to be covered by the cost of the trapping licenses, which run about $100 each.

“Between the cost of biological study and enforcement of trapping areas, it’s going to take some figuring out on exactly what the trappers should pay for,” Scott Gardner, upland game supervisor for the Department Fish and Wildlife, said.

Another public hearing on the topic is scheduled for June, and a final decision on whether or not to instate a complete ban on commercial bobcat trapping could come by August.

One hurdle left for conservationists will be to show the detrimental effects the trade can have on the species. But that’s easier said then done. For starters, no one knows for sure if bobcats are in decline or increasing in numbers, because nobody’s counted them in California since the 1970s.

At that time, the population was estimated at 70,000 statewide. Since then, trapping numbers have gone up and down with the rise and fall of pelt prices. The biggest trapping year came in 1978, with 20,000 bobcats killed, and the lowest trap total came in 2002, with 580 bobcats tallied.

“It’s funny, because conservationists will say, ‘We probably shouldn’t kill them until we know how they are doing,’ but trappers will say, ‘We don’t need to regulate trapping until there are numbers telling us the animals are in trouble,’ ” Cummings said.

Either way, both sides want to see updated numbers. If they show an increase in the bobcat population, trappers will have a foundation to argue for continued trapping. If they show a decrease, the conservationist’s call for a ban only gets stronger.

But neither side should count on it.

Tallying the population would be a job for the Department of Fish and Wildlife—but counting bobcats is not a high priority for the agency right now.

“We don’t survey bobcats statewide, because the information we have available to us doesn’t show them as particularly threatened,” Gardner said. “It’s a time-intensive and costly thing to record, and frankly we haven’t considered it to be necessary at this point.”

Regardless of the bobcat population, Cummings wants commercial trapping outlawed. Even with the Bobcat Protection Act in place, 1,639 bobcats were taken in 2014.

“Even if bobcats are abundant, we’re still against the commercial exploitation of them,” Cummings said. “And people can say the Joshua Tree story is just anecdotal evidence, but seeing that a single trapper in a single season can cause a noticeable difference in a region’s population is cause for concern.”