Driving through Johnston, Art Dunn looked left to the breakdown lane and his gaze met the animal’s dead eyes.
It was a bobcat, freshly killed by a passing vehicle; intact and mostly unscathed.
“I knew what it was right away,” he recalled from his drive north on Interstate 295 roughly two weeks ago. Dunn was headed to a friend’s house in Smithfield when the Warwick resident and local wildlife enthusiast spotted the roadkill.
“I recognized the head on it — the face,” Dunn said. He has a habit of identifying the dead animals he passes while traveling Rhode Island’s highways. “This was the first time I’ve seen a dead bobcat.”
Dunn’s not alone. He’s one of a growing list of local observers reporting bobcat sightings throughout Rhode Island.
Just one bobcat sighting was reported to DEM in 2010; by 2018 that number climbed to a record-high 119 reported sightings.
“As far as trends go, it is clear that we are receiving more reports of bobcat sightings throughout the year,” said DEM Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) biologist Morgan Lucot. “The sightings reports peaked in 2018. We aren’t quite sure why.”
Ocean State bobcat sightings in general have been on the rise, however the DEM scientists say more sightings don’t necessarily mean the animal’s local population is booming.
Dunn turned his truck around and went back for the carcass.
“I was hoping they could study it and learn more about him,” Dunn said. “I’ve never seen one close up like that.”
He loaded the bobcat into the back of his pickup truck and contacted DEM. A few days later, he arranged to drop the body off in Richmond where a DEM scientist took possession, to ultimately examine the dead animal. Lucot said necropsy results are pending.
In 2010, DEM received just one report of a bobcat spotted in Rhode Island. Better technology, state agency requests to the public for bobcat sighting reports and a likely growing population have led to a gradual but exponential increase in bobcat reports.
In 2015, DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) received 29 bobcat reports. By 2017, DEM received 101 reports, followed by 119 reports in 2018. In 2021, the last complete year for which DEM could provide information, the number slipped slightly to 86 bobcat reports.
“Obviously these numbers don’t correspond directly with populations, but research done by URI and DFW suggests that the bobcat population in Rhode Island (like most states within this species range) is on the rise,” wrote Sarah Riley, DFW’s chief implementation aide. “Some influences on these numbers may include: greater human activity outdoors and in RI in the summer months, seasonal activity of bobcats through the breeding and dispersal seasons, media articles and social media posts about bobcats, prey population numbers, etc.”
Bobcat reports have been coming in from across the state.
Several months ago, Johnston wildlife enthusiast Paul Landry, who lives off Hartford Avenue, caught a rare glimpse of four bobcats at once.
“I recently spotted a bobcat,” Landry told the Johnston Sun Rise in December 2022. “It was a whole bobcat family; a mother and three little ones.”
Riley said DFW has received reports from “Providence, Kent, and Washington counties, with most coming from Washington County in 2022 (roughly 67%, Providence county ~30%, Kent ~3%).”
Bobcat reports range year-to-year and seem to come in monthly, with no distinct seasonal ebbs or flows. The state’s northern region may be lush with bobcats, but they’ve possibly been better at avoiding snoopy neighbors.
“We certainly get bobcat reports in northern Rhode Island,” Lucot said. “If the population continues to grow we may see more and more reports from that area. Bobcats are fairly secretive animals and so it could be that they already occupy northern Rhode Island and residents don’t see them as much.”
Swelling populations of animals lower on the food chain may be helping to fuel a bobcat boon.
The whitetail deer population has been on the rise.
“The two could very well be connected,” Lucot said. “Bobcats can take down deer, even in the snow. We are not specifically researching that question, but it is possible we will in the future.”
While little is known about Rhode Island’s bobcat population, state-sponsored research hopes to solve some of the secretive animal’s local mysteries.
“Bobcats are an important part of our ecosystem, and greater number of bobcats is a sign that Rhode Island’s habitats are doing well enough to support them,” Riley explained. “The main food source for bobcats is rabbits and other small mammals, and greater numbers of small mammals typically means we’ll see more of the animals that need them to survive. Because small mammals often make use of the backyard habitat we create, sometimes that brings in other wildlife as well.”
Bobcats sightings do not directly correlate to population peaks and valleys for several reasons. Bobcats are shy and elusive creatures and regularly willingly travel greater distances than most Rhode Island humans.
“Typically, bobcats are very wary of people and will run away if approached or startled by loud noise,” Riley said. “They don’t typically stick around a neighborhood for very long and their reclusive nature and relatively large range means they often go unnoticed. Bobcats very rarely pose a threat to pets, but it’s always a good idea to be outside with pets and have them on leash to prevent them from interacting with any kind of wildlife (skunk, rabbit, bobcat, fox, etc.). In my personal opinion, bobcat sightings are a rare and exciting event. I’ve only seen one in the wild in Rhode Island so far.”
Based on a growing body of evidence, Rhode Island’s bobcat population seems to be growing, though specifics remain unknown.
“As far as why their population is growing, it’s really up in the air at this point,” Lucot said. “We aren’t totally sure and it could be due to a number of factors. There may be increased prey populations in Rhode Island; they may be part of a larger population in Connecticut or Massachusetts that has branched out into Rhode Island looking for space and resources. We will need to continue to monitor and study the bobcats here in Rhode Island before we have a more definite answer.”
TO REPORT A BOBCAT SIGHTING:
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