Bobcats can be found nationwide (one was even spotted in 2019 along the C&O Canal in Washington D.C.!). However, it’s difficult to tell if this species is thriving or declining in certain areas, because bobcats are great at staying out of sight with their camouflaged fur (seen above) and nocturnal habits. Most people think of bobcats as a forest species, so they are often surprised when I tell them I study bobcats on the Great Plains.
The northern Great Plains is known for wide open spaces and big skies, but there are forested areas here too, particularly around water. Waterways, such as creeks and rivers, can support dense vegetation along their banks. These areas are called riparian corridors, and bobcats can use them to move undetected through the prairie, hidden among sagebrush and the occasional tree.
As a graduate student with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the University of Wyoming, I explore how bobcats use riparian corridors within the larger grassland ecosystem. My study area is centered in the heart of the northern Great Plains in Phillips County, Montana. Along the borders of my study site, there are three areas where bobcats are more likely to spend time: the Milk River, the Little Rocky Mountains and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. That creates an area roughly 75 miles east to west by 55 miles north to south (which is about 700 square miles larger than Yellowstone National Park).
In an area this big, it’s both impossible and impractical to search for animals as reclusive as bobcats using traditional methods, like searching for their scat or tracks. Instead, I use camera traps to continuously watch over critical corridors in this vast landscape and document the elusive cats. A camera trap has a camera attached to a motion sensor that takes a photo whenever the sensor is triggered. With the help of fellow SCBI graduate student Claire Bresnan, we set up more than 80 camera traps along riparian corridors in our study area in May. We have visited them regularly since then to check for photos.