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February 17, 2010

Don't Downlist Bobcats

Approval of this proposal would leave other at-risk Lynx species more vulnerable to extinction

Humane Society International

  • America's most recognizable wildcat. Karel Broz/iStockphoto

  • Mother bobcat with her cub. John Pitcher/iStockphoto

  • Poised to pounce. Aaron Benedik/iStockphoto

Update: On March 17, 2010, the bobcat proposal failed—resulting in protection retained not only for bobcats, but for more endangered cats like Iberian Lynx who may be traded as bobcats.

The bobcat (Lynx rufus) was first listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1977 because bobcat specimens in trade cannot be distinguished from parts and products of other lynx species. Protections were needed to ensure effective control of trade in these other, more threatened felines.

This March, CITES representatives will meet once again to discuss more than 40 proposals, including a fourth attempt by the United States to remove the bobcat from Appendix II. If this suggestion is adopted, there will be no international or federal government oversight of the trade of bobcat skins and parts. Trapped in both the United States and in Canada, bobcats have become the most heavily traded wildcat species. International trade in bobcat fur, skins, parts and products has grown by more than 500 percent in the past 10 years. No one knows how many bobcats exist in the wild, but scientists consider the population as a whole to be decreasing.

Bobcats are easily confused with housecats because of their similar size and overall appearance. But on a closer look, one can tell a bobcat from a housecat by their larger-boned and more muscular body structure, small tufts of fur extending from the tips of their ears, and the short, dark-tipped tail. In fact, this bobbed tail is where they got their name.

Bobcats are seasonal breeders, mating in the late winter and early spring. Under optimal conditions, a female bobcat may have more than one litter per year, averaging two to four kittens each time. Bobcats can be found throughout most of the United States, parts of Mexico, and southern Canada in a variety of habitats, from small forested areas and open grasslands to brush land and semi-arid desert. Because of their typically large home range, sightings of these animals are rare. However, they are an important—perhaps critical—part of the balance of nature. Their carnivorous habits and preference for rabbits and rodents helps balance the populations of these animals.

A bad proposal

Historically, opposition to the U.S. proposal to delist the bobcat was led by European range states of the Critically Endangered Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) and the Endangered Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). Their concern was that removing the similar-looking bobcat from CITES Appendix II would facilitate illegal trade in these other small cats, which are currently listed on CITES Appendix I.

The U.S. government argues that listing the bobcat on Appendix II due to similarity of appearance to other felines is no longer warranted. U.S. representatives claim that bobcat pelts are preferred by North American and European fur industries over those of other Lynx species and that it's highly unlikely that products from Iberian or Eurasian lynx could enter illegal trade in quantities significant enough to impact populations. Yet, survey results confirm the demand for—and illegal trade in—the pelts of Iberian and Eurasian lynx. Even one Iberian lynx skin is significant to a population of fewer than 150 individuals; the same is true for scant Eurasian lynx populations. Furthermore, there is no evidence that de-listing the bobcat will reduce illegal trade in other Lynx species, as claimed in the proposal. In fact, doing so could increase illegal trade since other more endangered Lynx species could be easily passed off as legal bobcat. Unfortunately, without international protections in place, these remarkable felines may disappear entirely.