The Relationship Between Bobcats and Forest Fires

Research indicates that bobcats have an interesting and unique relationship with home ranges impacted by forest fires or prescribed burns.

The Relationship Between Bobcats and Forest Fires

Prescribed burning or wildfires yield benefits to woodlands, fields and wildlife including bobcats. (Photo: Billy Pope/Alabama DCNR)

Research indicates that bobcats have an interesting and unique relationship with home ranges impacted by forest fires or prescribed burns.

Fire has been used for centuries for hunting, regeneration of soils, vegetation management and more. Animals generally flee wildfires although some mortality is expected. For prescribed burns done appropriately under best conditions to yield optimal outcome, wildlife can more easily flee thanks to the (usually) non-raging conditions seen with wildfires.

Some animals don't waste time after a burn getting into the ashes, either. Wild turkeys return to prescribed burn areas sometimes within days to forage in the charred soil.

Bobcats seem to have a unique relationship with burned areas, too, according to research presented in the June issue of Forest Ecology and Management. Nine bobcats — six males, three females — were trapped, collared and tracked with GPS telemetry in the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia in 2018-19.

This area of the nation was, centuries ago, thick with old-growth forests of chestnut, oak, ash and other hardwood species. Settlers altered the landscape through forestation, fire, clearings for agriculture or other uses, and development, changing it drastically and forever.

Bobcats are known for utilizing concealment cover while stalking or ambushing prey. They are wary, as any hunter knows after watching one stalk or sit and watch an area keen for any movement or sound. Turkey and predator hunters know the surprise of "Oh, there it is" and sometimes how close a bobcat will be before revealing itself.

According to the researchers:

We found that bobcats selected for forest-edge, fire-created canopy openings, and recently harvested forest stands, and avoided the forest interior. Bobcats are likely selecting for these areas because of increased prey and cover. The comparatively widespread use of fire in this study area has allowed novel insight into the effects of prescribed fire on bobcat space use and demonstrates the ecological importance of future efforts to restore historical fire cycles in the Appalachians.

As one of the largest carnivores in Appalachian ecosystems and the only wild felid remaining in the region, we suggest managers consider bobcat ecology when planning habitat management strategies and communicate those strategies to the public. Our results demonstrate that silvicultural practices that aim to mimic historical forest disturbance likely benefit native wildlife, as evident from selection of these treatments by bobcats in this system.


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