Federal grants fund diverse wildlife studies


COLCHESTER, Vt. (AP) – Hidden in the brush of a still-brown field behind suburban homes one afternoon earlier this month was a 26-pound female bobcat. She was on the move.

Biologists were keen to know where she’s been and where she’s going. The cat, dubbed B15, was outfitted with a radio collar in January. And Mark Freeman and Olivia LaMaistre of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department were tracking her through the back roads of the state’s most populous county.

“She’s probably maybe a football field and a half in front of us,” Freeman said after locating the cat with a directional antenna. “She’s right off in that scrub, some of the thicker stuff maybe.”

Freeman and LaMaistre’s search, which is helping to judge the health of Vermont’s bobcat population, is part of a national effort to determine how various wildlife populations are faring.

In New Hampshire, for example, biologists are using the program to foster survival of Karner blue butterflies by encouraging school children to plant blue lupines that butterflies need to live. In Maryland, off-road vehicles are being studied to determine whether they’re threatening cold water streams.

There are also programs to protect bats in Pennsylvania, bay scallops in New York and the Pine Barren tree frog in New Jersey.

Those are among projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories that have received State Wildlife Grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The whole intent of state wildlife grants is to keep common species common and address species conservation needs before they become endangered,” said Dee Mazzarese, who helps administer the grants for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from Virginia to Maine. “It’s to look at the critters out there that haven’t had dedicated funding and direct some funding to them.”

In Vermont, the $300,000, four-year bobcat study is one of about 40 projects that have been funded with the help of the federal program. Biologists have used the grant money to study giant lake sturgeon or tiny rainbow smelt in Lake Champlain, a prime forage fish for trout and salmon, or fresh water mussels. It has funded studies of Bicknell’s thrush on top of Mount Mansfield, the state’s highest peak, helped develop a butterfly directory and a wildlife planning manual for towns.

“For a lot of these species it’s the first time any biologist has had a chance to spend any time on them,” said Jon Kart, who has helped coordinate state plans.

Freeman and LaMaistre’s tracking of bobcat B15 is helping determine how a species that’s typically wary of humans is faring in areas where development is moving into what until recently were rural areas.

Bobcats can be found throughout the Vermont countryside, but in what came as a surprise to Freeman, many are living in suburban back yards at the edge of the state’s most populated areas.

Vermont’s bobcats are thought to live around rock ledges and wetlands. They probably use regular corridors for traveling, said Kim Royar, who leads the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fur bearer team.

“We know that bobcats are a fairly adaptable animal,” said Royar. “We’re hoping we’ll have a scientific basis for conservation planning.”

There’s plenty of that habitat in the area where Freeman and LaMaistre are tracking the bobcats.

“What I am surprised about is the number of cats in the (Lake Champlain) valley,” Freeman said. “There are a lot more cats in the valley than I anticipated.”

It’s the same area where new homes are filling abandoned farm fields, once ideal hunting ground for the bobcats. They feed on song birds, turkeys, partridge, mice, the occasional rabbit and the even more occasional deer.

Freeman has led a team that started trapping the bobcats last spring. The cats are lured into box cages using beaver carcasses and other bait.

Over the course of the season the team caught 20 cats. Some were too small to outfit with radio collars and were released. Fifteen cats were collared. One was hit by a car and other bobcats either were outfitted with collars that didn’t work or were able to drop them in the wilderness. Four cats are now being tracked.

The collars, designed to fall off after 130 days, have equipment to track a bobcat’s travels, which will be fed into a computer after the collars are retrieved.

B15, a cat that had bred in the past, was trapped in January on the west side of Colchester Pond. Since then it’s been tracked back and forth across Colchester, which lies just north of Burlington. It regularly crosses Interstate 89, but there are indications it uses an underpass or culvert, and doesn’t cross four lanes of high-speed traffic.

The two researchers didn’t see B15 that afternoon, nor did they want to. But they noted her location before getting back into their car and heading south of Burlington. There, they quickly tracked bobcat B17, another female, in Charlotte.

They made no effort to spot the animals or let the bobcats know they were being followed.

“All we need to know is that they’re OK,” LaMaistre said.