Traffic on Highway 62 streams through the Southern California desert as Tom O’Key makes his way across his property near Joshua Tree National Park. O’Key hikes past a pile of boulders, through native plants and up to the bush where four months ago, he discovered a bobcat trap on his land.
“And when I saw it, I went, ‘This has got to have to do with something with wildlife research,'” O’Key recounts. “And it turned out it wasn’t. It turned out that a trapper had come on my land and dug this place out under this bush and then busted branches off that bush to camouflage it.”
O’Key left a note for the trapper and took the trap to a local newspaper.
The trapper told the paper he’d put out 30 traps in the area and had caught five bobcats in a single night. O’Key says that sent the preservation-minded community into an uproar.
“And so now we could have three or four trappers basically fish out a complete population of localized cats, say around Joshua Tree National Park,” O’Key says. “And two or three trappers in three or four seasons and who knows how many cats would be caught and what that would do to the population of the cats.”
Around the same time O’Key found the trap, Annica Kreuter noticed most of the bobcats had vanished from her neighborhood next to the national park. Kreuter tracked the cats in field notes for a decade.
“There was Allie. There’s Bert, Junior, Lola,” she says with a laugh. “Quite a few. Big Gray.”
Kreuter wondered what had happened to the eight bobcats, which returned to her property on the border of Joshua Tree National Park every year. Neighbors spotted only one this year.
Once O’Key found the cage trap, Kreuter and her neighbors assumed the wild cats had fallen to trappers, rather than disease or migration to another area.
“People are up in arms over it,” Kreuter says. “This is an innocent animal that does a lot of rodent control for us for free and are beautiful to watch and interesting. “And they can’t speak for themselves. And for some people to come in and just wipe them out, it’s really upsetting.”
Kreuter’s next-door neighbor is Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity. Cummings says that once the trap surfaced, it was clear what was happening to the bobcats – they were shipped to China.
There’s a market for bobcat pelts in China, especially those from the lighter-colored cats in the desert. Each one can fetch up to $700 apiece. That price has gone up over the last few years as demand has increased in markets like China, where the fur is used for coats and slippers.
Through the end of February this past season, California Department of Fish and Wildlife numbers show trappers exported about 1,60o bobcat pelts from the state. That number is down from the more than 20,000 bobcats trapped in the late 1970s.
“We’re trapping fewer now than we did 30 years ago. That may be true, but we’re trapping far more now than we were just a couple years ago,” Cummings says. “And in Southern California, the trapping level has gone up by about eight-fold in the past couple years.”
Hunters are limited to five bobcats per year in California, but trappers currently do not have limits beyond the trapping season, which runs from November through the end of January. California’s bobcat population hasn’t been counted since the early 1980s, when the state estimated more than 74,000 bobcats statewide.
A state Fish and Wildlife official says trappers aren’t limited because they used to use foothold and body-hold traps that would maim the animals, so they could not turn them lose. Those traps were outlawed through a state initiative in 1998.
Cummings says bobcats aren’t going extinct, but he says they still need to be protected.
“In California, we’ve already lost the grizzly bear. We lost the jaguar. We briefly had a wolf back last year. We’re down to one wolverine in the state,” Cummings says. “Our mega-fauna, the predators that are an important part of our natural heritage are largely gone. The bobcat is one of the last ones remaining.”
Within a month of the trap being found near Joshua Tree, Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) introduced a bill that would ban bobcat trapping around national and state parks, preserves and other natural areas in California, starting the first of the year.
The bill could mean an increase in license fees for trappers. The ban would still allow the trapping of nuisance animals to protect crops and other property. The bill would also require trappers to get written permission of landowners before setting traps on private land.
The state Assembly is due to vote on that bill, AB1213, today.
Bloom says it’s necessary to protect bobcats whose territory stretches out of protected areas.
“The bobcats don’t know what the boundaries of the parks are,” Bloom says. “And so we really want to make sure that we’re paying particular attention that are set aside for conservation, like our national parks and state parks, and make sure that those populations are sustained.”
Mercer Lawing takes in his surroundings at Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino County, near the mountains where he grew up hiking, trapping and hunting. Snow-like pollen drifts down from the trees. A coyote darts across a ridge and into some bushes.
Lawing, who represents the California Trappers Association, says trappers are being made out to be the bad guys, even though they just want to hold on to California’s rural heritage.”I’m not asking anybody to understand or like what I do,” he says. “I’m not trying to push my way of life on anyone. I’m just saying, hey, the wildlife exists for all citizens to use and enjoy in this state.” Lawing says trappers are being pushed out of the state and supporters of the proposed trapping ban have blown the issue out of proportion, creating legislation for a problem that doesn’t exist.
“The last thing they want to do is say, you know, ‘Please stop California trappers who average six bobcats a year,’ you know?” Lawing points out. “It sounds much better to say, ‘Stop the unlimited harvest of bobcats.'”
Lawing says rather than a ban, it would be better to create a trapper education course, to teach trappers how to better interact in communities where trapping is a sensitive topic, such as in Joshua Tree. He suggests that both sides work together on a wildlife management plan that would let all sides on the trapping issue have a say.
Keith Kaplan of the Fur Information Council of America also opposes the proposed ban. He says the Bobcat Protection Act of 2013 isn’t based on any scientific evidence.
“If they had come to us with a study on which to base any of this, we might be in a very different situation,” Kaplan says. “If they had come to us with something that showed anything different than the fact that the current harvest is so significantly under the allowable harvest, then perhaps the discussion would be different. This is a ban that’s been motivated by emotion.”
Kaplan calls the legislation “ill conceived.”
Back at Joshua Tree National Park, Ranger David Carney, who oversees the park, says it’s hard to judge the impact of bobcat trapping near the park borders.
“We don’t know what the impacts are because there’s not been any recent studies of populations within the park and the amount of trapping that’s happening right on the park boundaries to kind of give us a correlation and a number,” Carney says.
Carney, who can’t take a position regarding the bill, points out that trapping isn’t the only thing that can threaten wildlife in the park. He says pollution and development can have an impact, too — one that a buffer won’t change.