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Why are bobcats returning to New Hampshire?

University of New Hampshire wildlife biologists are investigating why the state's bobcat population has rebounded, despite a sharp drop in rabbits and other typical prey.

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    Bob, a bobcat, at the Panther Ridge Conservation Center in Wellington, Fla., in 2008.
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The bobcat population continues to steadily rise in New Hampshire, leaving researchers scratching their heads over the rather large felines' comeback. 

Despite a declining population of rabbits and other prey, the number of bobcats in the state has reached as many as 1,400, according to University of New Hampshire (UNH) biologists.  

Now, researchers are looking into the ways that changes in land use, such as an increase in development and human activity, have affected the bobcat population in New Hampshire and the northern New England region. 

"Recent population increases suggest that bobcats are adapting to a changing environment," Marian Litvaitis, a professor of natural resources and the environment at UNH and a leader of the study, told the Associated Press. "Identifying the pathways of this success may provide insight into understanding how ecosystems can remain relatively intact as human populations continue to expand." 

Scientists are interested in whether bobcats who live in more developed areas experience higher amounts of stress, Dr. Litvaitis said. 

"Increased stress has been associated with a decreased immune response and decreased reproductive success in animal populations," she explained. "Ultimately this may allow for projections about the general health of the bobcat population." 

According to a study by UNH researchers, bobcats have made a dramatic return to New Hampshire since nearly going extinct in the 1980s. In 1989, fewer than 150 were thought to have survived. 

One theory for the bobcats' comeback is that the animals have adapted their diets to feed on different types of prey, such as turkeys or squirrels, biologists said. Another possible factor could be the state ending its last bobcat hunting season in 1989. 

The now-booming population caused the state Fish and Game Commission to consider bringing back a limited hunting and trapping season, for which 50 bobcat permits would be issued through a lottery. But the proposal was criticized by opponents who feared that a bobcat hunt would lower the population once again.

"There are not too many bobcats and they are not causing trouble," Suzanne Fournier of Milford, N.H., who picketed outside the the Fish and Game Headquarters in early 2015 to protest the potential hunt, told WMUR. "The public has barely had a chance to see them." 

Legislators eventually withdrew the proposal in April of this year, after a committee of state House and Senate members, known as the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR), objected to proposed rules for the hunt.

When asked whether the canceled hunt was a victory for bobcats in the state, Glenn Normandeau, executive director of the Fish and Game Department, said the long-term effect on the bobcat population was impossible to know. 

"The problem with all of these questions about wildlife is that the answer to whether they won or not, you find out in 20 years, not today," he told NewHampshire.com. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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