By RICK CALLAHAN | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Sightings of one of Indiana's most secretive inhabitants — the bobcat — are on the rise in the state's central counties as the largely nocturnal animals venture south from a northeastern Indiana stronghold into areas with favorable habitat, state wildlife experts say.

Conservation Officer John Gano said he's received a growing number of reports this fall of sightings of the animals in northern Hamilton County, the county just north of Indianapolis. But he said central Indiana has seen in uptick for years of both bobcat sightings and “road-kill” cases.

The public shouldn't be alarmed by the wildcats' growing presence, Gano said, because they avoid human contact and are not a threat to either pets or livestock. Bobcats' favored prey includes rabbits, squirrels and field mice, he said.

Gano said the bobcats appearing in Indiana's central counties are believed to be moving south from populations around north-central Indiana's Mississinewa Reservoir, and possibly areas farther to the northeast. Most bobcats found dead along the area's rural roads following collisions with cars and trucks have been young males who likely set out on their own, he said.

“What happens is they get pushed out by the older, more dominant cats and they have to establish a territory of their own, and that's how they increase their range,” Gano said.

Indiana's bobcats were heavily trapped and hunted in the early 1900s, decimating their numbers until they were classified in 1969 as state endangered. Bobcats were removed from Indiana's endangered species list in 2005, but they remain a protected species in the state.

The native wildcats stand about 2 feet tall, typically weigh 15 to 25 pounds and sport a striking appearance, stubby “bobbed” tails 4 to 5 inches long and pale reddish-brown fur with black spots and streaks and whitish bellies. Their prominent ears are marked by short blackish tufts.

Scott Johnson, a nongame biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said bobcats' numbers have been growing since the 1990s, spurred by Indiana's growing amount of woodlands and brushy, grassy tracts that offer them both cover and food.

Indiana's primary bobcat habitat has long been southern Indiana's terrain of rolling hills, dense woods and rocky outcroppings. But a significant population also exists in northeastern Indiana's landscape of lakes, swamps and wooded tracts, he said.

Between about 1970 and 2000, Indiana had only about 30 confirmed bobcat sightings. But in 2011 alone there were about 75 confirmed bobcat sightings, all of which involved bobcats either found dead along roadways or killed in traps intended for other animals, he said.

Johnson said “road-kill” and trapped bobcats are the DNR's best way to assess their populations because the cats are fast-footed and elusive.

He said anyone who's ever seen a bobcat in the wild comes away impressed by their appearance.

“They're really beautiful animals. They're just magnificent looking in the wild and anyone who's fortunate enough to see one really enjoys that brief encounter,” Johnson said.