Re-printed from Salmon Press newspapers in Meredith, N.H.
By John Harrigan
In most news outlets across the state, this column is running well after the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire Primary – but after this paragraph, I’m saying nothing more about it. Instead, it’ll be about bobcats. After a steady drumbeat of supper-interrupting poll calls, talking heads, campaign signs, never-ending TV ads, and a week of post-primary postmortems, I’m pretty sure readers will breathe a sigh of relief.
(Note: It’s not that I think I’m above the Primary – not at all. It’s that I try to keep this column an oasis of sanity in an ever-crazier and noisier world.)
At one of the two bobcat hearings last week (more on that below), someone tapped me on an elbow and it turned out to be longtime reader Ben Haubrich of Francestown. He’s now retired after more than four decades as the director in residence at Monadnock State Park, and we had a lot of catching up to do.
He mentioned that over the years he’d managed to get a couple of bobcat pictures, one in particular that he got in 1978 and thought I’d like, and my ears perked up. How good was the photo? “Oh, okay, I guess,” he said. Of course I wanted to see it, and it arrived at my house the next morning. “Okay” doesn’t cover it for his photo. I wondered how he got it, and the story is best told in his own words:
“I had been the manager in residence at Monadnock State Park since taking over the position from Charlie Royce in 1972.
“(1978) had been a year with little, if any, hard mast crop. I often had 12 squirrels around my bird feeder. It had been quite a battle protecting the birdseed from those rodents—greased pole (oh, the dirty looks I would get!), pull-cord with bell, electrical current, etc. Finally I had the battle pretty much won by stringing a long thin wire between two distant trees and hanging the feeder mid-way, with lots of rollers on the wire.
“There was just one squirrel that would persist. It would get on the tree, rock back and forth to build momentum, and leap – 15 feet through the air to the feeder, and usually successfully grab hold (and I mean hold) until the feeder would settle down, and he would feast.
“I had a new camera that I decided to use to try to get a close-up, in mid-air, of my flying grey squirrel. It took some trial and error getting the focus on the right spot, but finally I was ready, and so was Mr. Squirrel. Just when all seemed to be set, a cat’s head peeped up from behind the snow bank. Damn! I assumed it was another feral cat left behind by summer camp people.
“The next thing I knew the cat was leaping over a red squirrel, catching and tumbling with a grey squirrel that eventually broke loose and scrambled away. And it was no feral cat. It was a bobcat! My first ever sighting! I was so excited I still feel that emotion today. Wow! I couldn’t wait to tell my friends. But … damn, again. A camera all set up, the sighting of a lifetime, but no picture.
“Well, it turns out it wasn’t the sighting of a lifetime. Over the course of the next several days that opportunistic cat was back on a regular mid-day basis – and frequently missing, or catching and losing its prey. Eventually he met success on at least a couple of occasions, and I got my pictures. I’m not sure what I was more pleased with – my photos, or the cat’s finally getting a meal.”
At the two bobcat season hearings, several people came up to me or testified and said that in all their years in the woods they had never seen a bobcat. In all my years I can remember seeing only three. So Ben was a lucky and persistent guy indeed, and I thank him for sharing his fine photo.
New Hampshire Fish and Game – the 11-member Commission, not necessarily members of the staff – wants to remove the bobcat from protection and allow a lottery season for the taking or pursuit of bobcats by hunting, trapping, hounding and hunting over bait. To my knowledge the season was requested by several trappers. Longtime friends of Fish and Game, which happens to be my favorite branch of state government too, strongly advised the Commission members not to bring this proposal forward. They warned that it would create a firestorm of protest and bring the department nothing but problems – and it turned out they were right.
In the meantime, a UNH study, based partly on sightings at backyard birdfeeders and a survey of selected residents, indicated that there are between 1,100 and 1,400 bobcats in the state. In the opinion of F&G’s wildlife division, a brief lottery season could take 50 bobcats without harming the long-term prospects of the population. Note that word “could.”
In my first column on the proposal, back in October, I said that the issue is not “can” there be a season – I have no argument with the science – but “should.” And I wrote, and have written since, that this is a clear case of not following the science out the window, but your heart instead.
The bobcat does not “need” our beneficent “management.” Like all apex predators, it manages itself, based on the ups and downs of its prey. The best thing we can do for this little cat that is so wild, rugged, independent, fiercely territorial and free – attributes that somehow apply to the state I love – is to just plain leave it alone.
At the first public hearing on the proposal at the State House on Feb. 1, the 400-seat Legislative Hall was packed, with the overflow going to the balcony. The seemingly endless lineup of speakers went 10 to one against the season. The hearing the next evening in Lancaster was more heavily attended by trappers and their friends and supporters, and speakers supported the proposal by about three to two.
But clearly the Commission members have a tiger by the tail here, and they know it. They need a face-saving way out of their self-imposed dilemma, and here it is: Several speakers said that if the bobcat season is approved, they’ll post their land – and they’re not talking a few hundred acres here, but several major land-holdings in the thousands of acres.
It is the perfect reason for the Commission to put this bad idea, which should never have seen the light of day to begin with, into the dustbin where it belongs.
Longtime statewide outdoor writer and North Country newspaper owner John Harrigan of Colebrook writes for InDepthNH.org whenever the spirit moves him. His weekly column “North Country Notebook” runs in the Salmon Press papers covering the northern two-thirds of the state (newhampshirelakesandmountains.com), as well as the Colebrook News and Sentinel. He is a guest every Thursday morning at 7:10 on Concord’s WTPL FM 107.7 with host Peter St. James. He has been working in various media, with a lot of radio and television but mostly newspapers, for 47 years and, he says, “still counting.” Email Harrigan at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him at Box 39, Colebrook, NH 03576.)