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October 25, 2011

UW Stevens Point partners in project involving Conservation Canines

MADISON -- Dogs rescued from shelters have been trained to detect the scent of the elusive bobcat in Wisconsin to help scientists determine how many of these North American mammals are at home in the Badger State's central region.

Roughly two years remain on a three-year joint research project involving the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point that started because of increasing interest in this nocturnal, solitary, and secretive animal.

"We have very little information about the bobcat in areas south of Highway 64," DNR Scientist David MacFarland says. "And the animal is attracting a lot of attention."

Study fueled by bobcat's popularity

Traditionally found in the northern third of Wisconsin, some individuals suggest bobcats have been expanding south in the past decade. At the same time, interest in harvesting them has also increased. In 2009, 13,087 hunters and trappers applied for 475 bobcat permits.

The DNR Furbearer Management Committee asked the department's Bureau of Science Services to initiate research to estimate the number of bobcats south of Highway 64, the southern boundary of the current harvest area. Dr. Eric Anderson, wildlife professor at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, who has been studying bobcats for more than 20 years, was invited to work with DNR scientists to develop the ongoing joint project.

Funding for the project stems from two sources. One portion comes from a recent permit application fee increase from $3 to $6. This fee increase was proposed by the Wisconsin Trappers Association, and supported by the department, to generate funds for bobcat research. Additional funding comes from the Pittman-Robertson Fund, a federal wildlife program supported through the sale of firearms, ammunition and archery equipment.

Conservation canines follow the scent

"Most of the population estimating techniques we use rely upon data collected from harvested animals," MacFarland said. "But, bobcats are not harvested south of Highway 64. So we had to think of another way."

They turned to the Conservation Canines (exit DNR) at the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. Pioneered in 1997 by Dr. Samuel Wasser, the program uses rescued dogs trained to find the feces- also known as scat - of various animals. The dogs have been involved in research in this country and abroad. This time they were trained to find bobcat scat.

"Once we've collected the samples," UW Stevens Point graduate student John Clare said, "we can extract the DNA which lets us identify individual animals."

Clare hopes the samples will provide enough information to estimate bobcat density for some of the areas south of Hwy 64. This summer's work, which covered about 100 square miles, was a pilot study to see if the technique would work in Wisconsin and if enough scat could be found to accurately estimate bobcat density.

A total of 91 samples were collected and are being analyzed by Clare at the Molecular Conservation Genetics Lab at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point.

Trail cameras also feature in the research

In addition to using the scat-detecting dogs, the researchers are placing 16 trail cameras across 25 square mile areas to estimate the numbers of bobcats in an area.

"Individual bobcats can be identified by the unique patterns on their fur," Anderson said. "If we get images of the same animal on multiple cameras, we can use mathematical models to estimate their density."

So far, their cameras have yielded hundreds of images of bobcats.

Private citizens are encouraged to report their own trail camera photos of bobcats. The observations will provide important information on the extent of bobcat range in central and southern Wisconsin. Citizens can find the online form by going to the DNR website and searching for "Wisconsin Black Bear and Bobcat Observations."

"We have completed one sampling season and we have one more year of field work," MacFarland said. "We need to learn more about the bobcat in Wisconsin and this is an effective way to capture critical information."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: David MacFarland - (715) 365-8917 or Joanne Haas - (608) 267-0798

Last Revised: Tuesday, October 25, 2011

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