Friday, August 28, 2015

A day with a wildlife biologist

Yesterday I had the opportunity to participate in something really cool.  I got to tag along with Heather Shaw, wildlife biologist for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, while she checked on a series of sites designed to identify and monitor Bobcat (Lynx rufus) populations in Isabella County.  A graduate of Central Michigan University, Heather has previously worked as a wildlife technician for the the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game and a biologist for Ducks Unlimited in both Michigan and North Dakota.  In addition to working for the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, she is also completing work on her masters degree from CMU.

Wildlife biologist Heather Shaw measures and records tracks at a scent station

Like most people, I have never seen a live bobcat in the wild.  Bobcats tend to be secretive, and are often widely dispersed across large territories.

How do you monitor a population like this?

Heather is using a series of scent stations situated along roadside transects in likely bobcat habitat.  What this means, is that along a selected path (a transect) she was setting up a bed of sand to record footprints and baiting it with a scent tablet to attract bobcat (and other predators).  When an animal investigated the scent tablet, their footprints would recorded in the sand, enabling Heather to build a picture of the locations where bobcats can be found.

Scent stations were set up along the edges of local roads - sometimes in built-up areas
Other stations were located in more rural areas

Why is this important?

Heather is not the only person setting up these stations and recording data.  Other biologists around the state are recording the same type of information.  This information is used by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to set seasons and bag limits for bobcat hunting and trapping.  Bobcat hunting and trapping are currently allowed in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, with Isabella County included in the the hunting/trapping zone.

What did we find?

We followed three transects that had been set up earlier in the week.  Each transect consisted of a number of scent stations spaced 1/3 mile apart.  These transects were set up directly along the sides of roads so they are easy to check.  Animals including bobcats will use roads as travel corridors, so these stations were likely to be exposed to any bobcats traversing the area.

Each station consisted of a smooth bed of sand approximately 2 to 3 feet in diameter.  A fatty acid scent tablet was placed in the center of each station.  These tablets are attract many species of predators and are even investigated by herbivores such as deer.  I could smell the tablets.  Bobcats have a better developed sense of smell than humans so they should definitely be able to smell it.
Tracks circling a scent tablet

We ended up finding lots of tracks - domestic dog, house cat, coyote, fox (probable), opossum, raccoon, white-tailed deer, wild turkey.  Some tracks were not distinct enough to positively identify, but yes we did find bobcat tracks at several of the stations.  We found definite bobcat tracks along two of the transects and possible bobcat tracks along the third transect.

A likely bobcat track - this track definitely belongs to a feline and is probably too big for a domestic cat

A clear pair of bobcat tracks - with coyote tracks in the background
At each station, Heather would measure and record all possible bobcat tracks as well as recording tracks of other species.  Then she "reset" the site using a board to smooth the sand and replaced the scent tab if needed.  

Heather Shaw resets a scent station  only yards from M-20

This study is wrapping up for the year, but Heather plans to repeat the study next year and hopes to incorporate trail cameras.  Trail cameras will take those probable tracks and turn them into a definite "yes" or "no".  Heather has other possible wildlife study plans


  1. Interesting study; I look forward to the trail cam footage

  2. Great blog! I found this extremely interesting, as I had no idea how these types of studies were done. Thanx!