Perched in a tree stand near Gordon last weekend, Andy Stanley heard a noise.
The sound came from behind a big oak tree, and he couldn’t immediately make out its source.
His heart raced. Could it be the big buck he’d been dreaming about?
The answer soon became clear, as three bobcat kittens wandered within 15 yards of the Eau Claire deer hunter, with one lying on its back in the sun.
Stanley, 46, owner of Andy Stanley Construction, couldn’t believe his eyes as the kittens scrambled up a tree about 10 yards away from his tree.
Recognizing the rarity of enjoying a close-up view of such a stealthy creature, much less three of them, the nature lover snapped a few photos with his cellphone and delighted in his good fortune.
“To be up there and see something like that, it was just amazing,” Stanley said. “They were just beautiful little creatures.”
Little did Stanley know that on opening day of deer hunting season he had stumbled upon a remarkable Wisconsin comeback story — perhaps even more momentous than the Green Bay Packers storming back from 20 points down to beat the Chicago Bears in this year’s NFL season opener.
“The bobcat is a huge conservation success story,” said Nathan Roberts, a state Department of Natural Resources furbearer research scientist based in Rhinelander. “This is a species that up until 1964, there was a bounty on them.”
Wisconsin’s first move to protect the bobcat happened in 1970, when hunting regulations were established for the once abundant species.
DNR estimates show the bobcat population in northern Wisconsin — the area north of Highway 64 — had reached around 3,500 in fall 2017, more than double the 1,600 identified in the mid-1980s. While the agency has less information on bobcats in the southern two-thirds of the state, the population has grown enough that Wisconsin launched a bobcat hunting and trapping season in that area in 2014.
“The bobcat population in the United States has done very well over the past 40 years or so, and Wisconsin is no exception,” Roberts said, noting that the creatures are found in all 48 contiguous states.
The number of bobcats in the U.S. is estimated to have increased from 1 million in 1981 to 3.5 million in 2008.
Adult bobcats in Wisconsin are about twice the size of house cat. They typically weigh 20 to 30 pounds, stand 18 to 24 inches tall and measure about 3 feet long. They have orange-tan fur with black stripes on the face and spots on the body, a stubby “bobbed” tail and spiky ear hair.
As someone who takes pride in my ability to spot wildlife, I will admit to being more than a little envious when I saw a photo of Stanley’s bobcat trio on Facebook next to this caption: “While everyone was shooting pictures of deer, look what I found near my tree.”
Though it has long been a goal of mine, I have never seen a bobcat in the wild, despite their recovery.
Roberts said I am far from alone, although the DNR has had a recent uptick in reports of bobcat sightings, often on trail cameras.
“I like to say they’re an elusive but not rare species,” he said. “They are secretive, they blend in well with their surroundings, and they are really conscious about how they move around.”
From what the DNR has learned by equipping nearly 100 bobcats with GPS tracking collars in the past four years, it’s surprising more folks don’t catch a glimpse of the large felines, because they actually do cross roads and slink around the edges of cities on occasion, Roberts said.
“They’re just very stealthy,” he said. “You’re more likely to have been seen by a bobcat than you are to have seen one of them.”
That reality makes Stanley’s experience all the more remarkable.
It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when Stanley first noticed his furry friends. He hadn’t seen a deer all day on his usual Douglas County hunting grounds and appreciated the distraction.
“Then that’s right when I saw my only deer of the day (off in the distance), but I didn’t care about the deer. I just wanted to watch those bobcats,” Stanley said.
After a while, Stanley couldn’t resist trying to get an even better photo. So he climbed down from his tree and slowly walked right underneath where the kittens sat next to each other on tree branches about 10 feet off the ground. He extended his arm up toward them and snapped several more photos. The bobcats made a sort of clucking noise until they saw him.
“They watched me walk underneath them and let me take their picture,” he said. “They never hissed or anything. It didn’t seem like they were afraid of me at all.”
(From my perspective, those kitties are lucky they saw Stanley’s softer side. I more often see him smashing racquetballs well over 120 mph around a racquetball court — a frightful sight that surely would have sent those kitties running for cover.)
After about an hour of watching the baby bobcats lounging in the branches, Stanley heard a gunshot in the distance and then got a text from his 14-year-old son, Brayden, indicating he had fired at a buck. Admittedly somewhat reluctantly, Stanley left the kittens to see if his son had bagged his first buck. After determining Brayden had missed out on his trophy, Stanley hiked back to his deer stand about 45 minutes later and was surprised to find his bobcat buddies still hanging out in the neighboring tree.
“They had no worries at all,” Stanley said. “They stayed with me until about 4:45 when I was done hunting for the day.”
Stanley theorized that the mother bobcat must have communicated to the kittens that they should seek safety in a tree while she hunted for food.
Naturally, that raises the question, posed by many of Stanley’s Facebook friends, that I will paraphrase simply as: Weren’t you worried about momma?
Truth be told, Stanley said, the claws in a potentially protective mother’s paws never gave him pause.
Roberts confirmed safety probably wasn’t a concern, as bobcats pose almost no risk to humans and eat mostly rabbits and squirrels, with the occasional sick or feeble white-tailed deer being the largest of its prey.
“Attacks on people by healthy bobcats are just unheard of,” Roberts said.
Of course, so are close encounters with bobcat kittens, and Stanley, who planned to be back in the north woods this weekend, remains thankful for his Thanksgiving week treat.
“I’ve been going up there for 34 years and never seen anything like that,” Stanley said. “I know the odds of that are pretty remote, so I definitely feel lucky.”