This week, Illinois reopened its first bobcat hunt in more than 40 years. In the days to come, many of these small but beautiful creatures – only slightly larger than the average housecat – will be chased down by packs of dogs, shot with guns or bows and arrows, and violently clasped and placed in a vise-grip by unforgiving steel-jawed leghold traps. Not for meat, not for public safety, and not for farm animal protection. Just for the sport of it, and for their fur.
Illinois’ native carnivores – including bobcats – were once abundant, but then were wiped out because of unregulated hunting, predator control, and habitat loss. After being listed in the state as a threatened species in 1977, bobcats began a comeback and reclaimed some of their original habitat. Unfortunately, the state’s trophy hunters and trappers saw this restoration as an opportunity, rather than as a cause for celebration. Instead of resolving to maintain protections, state lawmakers, goaded by downstate colleagues whose rhetoric showed they were out for blood, passed legislation legalizing a hunting and trapping season for the first time since 1972. The bill narrowly passed in the Senate, but was defeated in the House. Downstate legislators stamped their feet, however, and got a re-vote, flipping Republican lawmakers from the Chicago suburbs and delivering a victory to the trappers and trophy hunters. Governor Bruce Rauner, to the disappointment of thousands of Illinois residents who wrote to him asking him to veto the bill, enthusiastically signed the legislation.
The beauty of bobcats is their greatest vulnerability – trappers and trophy hunters typically target them to make money from the sale of their speckled fur, often resorting to horrific killing methods, including bludgeoning, drowning, or strangling trapped bobcats, as bullets or arrows might damage the value of their pelts. Many of the pelts are sold to Russia where a bobcat coat can retail for up to $150,000.
The rationale used to defend this hunt was ludicrous for a number of reasons, including the fact that there’s never been a statewide population study. While lawmakers were debating whether to open a season on bobcats, one representative absurdly claimed that he saw a bobcat walking across his yard, and thought he was “looking at a saber-tooth tiger.” As bobcats typically average about 15 to 35 pounds, this amounted to nothing more than hyperbolic fear-mongering. Bobcats pose no risk to public safety.
A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research statewide poll of Illinois voters last year revealed that two-thirds of voters in the state oppose the trophy hunting and trapping of bobcats. That same poll showed that a whopping 78 percent of voters oppose the use of steel-jawed leghold traps to kill the animals, and 77 percent support a prohibition on the sale of their pelts. Thankfully, State Sen. Don Harmon has introduced legislation – S.B. 2143 – to do just that.
After passing out of committee earlier this year, S.B. 2143 is still pending, with a full vote in the senate looming. We’re grateful that Sen. Harmon and many other legislators continue to stand up for bobcats, and we thank them deeply for their ongoing commitment to protecting these animals. This bill can make the opening of the bobcat hunting and trapping season the last one ever.
Of course, Illinois is not the first state to allow a trophy hunting and trapping season for bobcats. Trappers and others are constantly trying to legalize hunts in states where they remain protected. Indiana is currently considering a bobcat trophy hunting and trapping season. Just last year, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Commission tried to legalize bobcat hunting, but thousands of residents voiced their opposition in response, and the proposal was ultimately withdrawn. This outpouring of opposition demonstrated the great power that residents have to truly affect change, and we must remain vigilant in our fight to keep bobcats, and other species, protected.
Let’s rally for the bobcats in Illinois, but in every other state, too, where they’re at risk.