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When Lauren Umek heard Illinois was going to allow bobcat hunting for the first time since 1972, she applied for a hunting permit. So did four of her relatives.But they have no intention of hunting. "I might pull it out at parties," Umek said of...

Bobcat lovers seek hunting permits in bid to thwart Illinois’ first cull since ’72

When Lauren Umek heard Illinois was going to allow bobcat hunting for the first time since 1972, she applied for a hunting permit. So did four of her relatives.But they have no intention of hunting. "I might pull it out at parties," Umek said of...

Bobcat lovers seek hunting permits in bid to thwart Illinois’ first cull since ’72

When Lauren Umek heard Illinois was going to allow bobcat hunting for the first time since 1972, she applied for a hunting permit. So did four of her relatives.

But they have no intention of hunting.

"I might pull it out at parties," Umek said of the permit on Monday, three days after checking a state list online and discovering that she's one of 500 people who obtained a coveted permit among more than 6,400 who applied. "It'll be a great conversation starter."

Umek, 34, an ecologist from Chicago, is among an untold number of the feline's fans who applied for permits with the notion of reducing the number of cats killed. The move has reheated the debate that turned the bobcat into a political animal last year.

Permits are being mailed, and the season is set to open with trapping Nov. 5.

Umek said she is the only person in her group of 30 or so like-minded friends and relatives who obtained a permit. Hunting plays an important role in conservation, she added, but the bobcat hunt seems to contradict the notion that the cat's comeback in Illinois has been a success.

She didn't see detailed, scientifically based research showing the need for hunting the wild carnivore, which was nearly erased from the landscape and spent more than two decades on Illinois' endangered species list.

A Western Illinois University program studies the Illinois bobcat population.

"I'm still waiting for that extra, logical step of why we are permitting hunting again," she said, "and that was not available."

Daniel Suarez, 29, also of Chicago, applied for five permits using his name and the names of relatives but was unsuccessful

"There's this really simplistic view of nature," said Suarez, 29. His effort is an attempt to raise awareness, he added, and "to draw in people to a bigger conversation about the value of natural areas. It can change the tide on our way of looking and thinking."

Scott Bryant already values natural areas, which is why his organization wrote the bobcat hunting legislation, he said. Bryant, 52, of Eldred in southwest Illinois, is president and executive director of the Illinois Federation for Outdoor Resources. IFOR's 84 organizations are predominantly hunting and fishing groups.

"They're protecting one species and allowing it to destroy other species," Bryant said of the bobcat activists. "We have a big predator problem in the state, whether they want to believe it or not."

The prevalence of coyotes, red-tailed hawks and bobcats in southern and western sections of the state have made rabbits scarce and have drastically brought down the number of quail and pheasant in the region, Bryant said.

"These bobcats are over-running a lot of other animals," he added. "We have to try and keep a balance."

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources agrees.

"It's good wildlife management," IDNR spokesman Tim Schweitzer said, adding that wildlife conservation biologists have said that culling 10 to 20 percent from the bobcat population would keep it in balance with other species and the larger ecosystem.

Bobcat caught on hunting camera in McDonough County, Ill.

A Wisconsin deer hunter captures footage of a bobcat in McDonough County, Ill. (John Jansky)

A Wisconsin deer hunter captures footage of a bobcat in McDonough County, Ill. (John Jansky)

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The brownish, spotted bobcat — Lynx rufus — stands as tall as 2 feet at the shoulder and averages about 22 pounds, although adult females are smaller. They generally eat rabbits, mice, voles and squirrels but are known to take muskrat, opossum, birds, fish, snakes, even an occasional deer.

By the mid-1900s, unregulated hunters and habitat change nearly eradicated the animals in Illinois. The state banned bobcat hunting in 1972 and placed the species on its threatened list from 1977 to 1999.

Those measures helped. Today, IDNR estimates that about 5,000 of the shy, elusive and generally solitary cats roam the state.

Taking 500 of the animals, which are hunted as trophies or for their pelts, is expected to allow the population to grow steadily, Schweitzer said. The upcoming hunting seasons run intermittently through Jan. 31.

Given Illinois policymaking history, it may come as no surprise that establishing the bobcat hunting season became ensnared in politics.

After lawmakers passed a bobcat hunting bill in 2014, then-Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, vetoed it one day before leaving office in January 2015, saying the animals are a "valuable part of Illinois' ecosystem" that needed protection.

I'm still waiting for that extra, logical step of why we are permitting hunting again — and that was not available. — Lauren Umek, ecologist from Chicago

Three days later, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a fishing, hunting and sport-shooting enthusiast, signed a revived bobcat hunting bill.

Rockford resident Jennifer Kuroda had been following the issue of a bobcat hunt since 2014, when she created a Facebook page, Illinois Bobcat Conservation. About that time, she began considering the idea of obtaining a license and not using it, Kuroda said.

In late September, she posted the idea on the Illinois Bobcat Conservation Facebook page, which has 212 likes. She and "a handful of my friends" applied for licenses, said Kuroda, 45, a health care worker and president of her local Audubon chapter.

Her primary reason for trying to game the system, she said, is that IDNR's research is outdated and its plan imprecise.

"I don't buy that," Kuroda said of contentions that the bobcat is over-running other species. "I don't think they know."

She was unsuccessful, as was Robb Telfer, a poet, community organizer and habitat restorer from Chicago, who saw a Facebook post on the ploy and applied for a permit. So did his partner.

"If my dog had a Social Security number, he would have applied for one, too," joked Telfer, 36.

Telfer said he is not "anti-hunter," but the state's ecosystem — especially the Chicago area — is making a slow comeback, and "we're in need of predators."

He suggests nonlethal ways to prevent bobcats from doing harm. He's also considering organizing a photo safari for the nonhunters who obtain permits to find bobcats in southern Illinois, where the animals are prevalent.

Bobcat Western Illinois University A research trail camera catches a bobcat in Hancock County in western Illinois. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources estimates the cat’s population statewide at about 5,000. A research trail camera catches a bobcat in Hancock County in western Illinois. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources estimates the cat’s population statewide at about 5,000. (Western Illinois University)

"Just because something can hurt you doesn't mean you should eradicate or cull it," Telfer said. "That's genocidal thinking. We're very smart monkeys. We should figure out ways to protect ourselves from things that do hurt us."

That thinking reveals an inaccurate perception of life in more natural settings, Bryant said. Bobcats can survive only in specific habitats that include forests, bluffs and riverbanks, he said.

"We can move a bunch of these to the city of Chicago or to cornfields," Bryant added. "They won't last a week."

Those trying to prevent the bobcat hunt are elevating their personal species preferences over the well-being of an entire ecosystem, he said.

What's becoming evident about the cat's re-emergence in Illinois is that their prevalence varies widely.

Ongoing research at Western Illinois University shows that individual bobcats in a four-county area around Macomb roam over as many as 115 square miles, said Christopher Jacques, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at WIU who is working with graduate student Tim Swearingen on tracking the animals. A bobcat in southern Illinois typically covers about 1.4 square miles, Jacques said.

Sightings in the Chicago area are rare, experts say.

The IDNR's Schweitzer noted that the law bans for at least one year bobcat hunting in all or parts of 27 counties in the northeast quarter of the state, including the six-county Chicago region.

A total of 6,416 people applied for the 500 permits, Schweitzer said. Each permit allows one kill. If the goal of killing 500 bobcats falls short this season, he added, IDNR would distribute more permits for the 2017-18 hunting season.

"Ultimately," Schweitzer said, "the department's goal is to manage the population."

Umek has a different objective.

"Part of the idea is challenging the science behind it," she said. "We're cool with the idea but only if it's based on sound science, not just if it's based on whim and politics of people who want to hunt."

tgregory@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @tgregoryreports

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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