Bobcats (Felix rufus) are small wild cats with reddish-brown or yellowish-brown coats, streaked with black or dark brown. They have prominent, pointed ears with a tuft of black hair at the tip. Females average 20 pounds and males weigh from 16 to 30 pounds. They breed in late winter or early spring and have a gestation period of about two months. A female may have one to six kittens each year. Although adapted to a variety of habitats across the country, they do not tolerate the deep snows found in much of Yellowstone, and thus they are usually reported in the northern portion of the park. Bobcats move about their home ranges most actively in the hours near dawn and dusk, hunting small mammals such as mice, rabbits, hares, and deer. They seek cover in conifer stands and on rocky ledges.
In the early years of this century, bobcats were reported as "somewhat common" in the park. In the last 64 years, there have been at least 43 reports of bobcats sighted in the park, 9 to 14 reports in each decade since 1960. These sightings have occurred throughout the park; about 80 percent have occurred in the northern half. Bobcats have been reported in about equal numbers during all seasons. In 1960, a bobcat was killed by a car near Squaw Lake (now Indian Pond) on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake; its skull was deposited in the Yellowstone Museum collection. Other roadkilled bobcats were reported in 1993 and 1996. In 1960, a young bobcat was reported on the porch of the administration building at Mammoth; other young bobcats have been reported at Pebble Creek bridge (Feb. 1977) and at Canyon campground (July 1986), where one accompanied an adult bobcat.
No research has been conducted in Yellowstone to determine the numbers or distribution of this elusive animal that usually is solitary, nocturnal, and widely scattered over its range.
Unlike lynx, which they resemble, bobcats elsewhere have been highly adaptable to human-caused changes in environmental conditions; some biologists believe that there are more bobcats in the United States today than in colonial times. Yellowstone has many rock outcrops, canyons bordered by rock ledges, conifer forests, and semi-open areas that seem to offer conditions favorable for bobcats—adequate shelter, a variety of rodents, rabbits, hares, birds, and other small animals as well as seasonal carrion, for food. Carrion is seldom used if live prey is available. Studies elsewhere have shown that bobcats also may kill both young and adult antelope and deer; they stalk bedded adults and may be carried long distances while biting their prey in the neck.
Bobcats are known to hole-up and wait out severe winter storms elsewhere, but whether they are able to tolerate the severe midwinter conditions of the park interior is unknown. These elusive cats are most active at night, so even those who study them seldom have an opportunity to see one. If you are so fortunate, look for the black bars on the inside of the forelegs. Black bars mean bobcat, and not the similar-looking lynx! If you see tracks, measure and photograph them carefully, then consult a track field guide. Bobcat tracks seldom exceed 2 1/4 inches in length; lynx tracks usually are longer than 3 1/2 inches.
If you see a bobcat or bobcat tracks, please report them promptly to a ranger or visitor center. For animals so seldom recorded, every observation is useful and important.
Did You Know?
At peak summer levels, 3,500 employees work for Yellowstone National Park concessioners and about 800 work for the National Park Service.