By RUSS BYNUM | Associated Press
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Remote-sensing cameras set up to help researchers count deer on Jekyll Island ended up capturing images of a more elusive animal that had never before been confirmed at the island state park.
The only prior evidence that bobcats may live on Jekyll Island was a photograph from the early 1900s showing pelts hanging in the gamekeeper's cabin. A century later, park staff and island residents sometimes reported fleeting glimpses of the nocturnal predators. But nobody had proof.
That changed this fall as conservation staff for the Jekyll Island Authority were working to estimate the population of white-tailed deer and using cameras triggered by motion to photograph them at night. Two weeks apart, cameras on different parts of the island snapped photos before dawn of a lone bobcat with its stubby tail and white patches behind its ears. Park officials suspect both photos show the same animal.
“It's the first definite, confirmed documentation of a bobcat on the island ever,” said Ben Carswell, conservation director for Jekyll Island. “We have no way to be sure whether this animal showed up recently on Jekyll. They're such secretive animals, it could be this one and others have been out here for some time.”
The discovery prompted the state authority that manages Jekyll Island, known for its undeveloped beaches and maritime forests teeming with wildlife, to take a closer look in December for more bobcats prowling unseen at night. The island is home to few other predators, save for gray foxes and alligators.
The follow-up study didn't turn up much. Cameras caught two more images of a lone bobcat. Carswell said there's no way to tell if it's a different animal than the one photographed in September. Meanwhile, pungent bait was left at 50 locations across Jekyll Island inside a circle of powdered lime to collect tracks from lured animals. The bait drew plenty of gray foxes and raccoons, Carswell said, but no bobcats.
“If we do have more than one bobcat on Jekyll Island, there aren't very many more than one,” Carswell said. “A few at most.”
It's possible the bobcat photographed in September came from the mainland and either trudged up the 5-mile causeway to Jekyll Island or even swam across the marsh, Carswell said. There's longstanding uncertainty about whether larger bobcat populations have ever lived there.
According to Jekyll Island's 2013 master plan for managing the island, bobcats probably once helped limit whitetail deer and raccoon populations, but evidence suggests they may have been exterminated by hunting during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Bobcats are known to steer clear of humans and should pose no threat to Jekyll Island residents or visitors, Carswell said.
Even a breeding pair of bobcats living on the island could point toward a natural solution for how the state park ultimately handles a tricky problem with its deer population, said David Egan, an island resident and leader of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park.
The Jekyll Island Authority board in July approved a report that recommended hiring government sharpshooters to thin what officials say is an overabundance of white-tailed deer on the island. Many residents oppose the idea, saying a park known for wildlife conservation shouldn't resort to such lethal methods. The board hasn't revisited the issue in months.
Despite their compact size, bobcats are known to prey on deer.
“Let's say there's actually two of them, a male and a female, then obviously we're going to get more bobcats here down the road,” Egan said. “But if it's a lone bobcat, it won't have much impact.”