Audio: bobcats, beauty, and the desert

I recorded a few minutes of myself talking about bobcats for Teddy Quinn’s project Radio Free Joshua Tree. He edited the piece to include some really rather lovely flute music in the background, and you should definitely listen to it there: it’s 17 minutes into hour two of his Variety Show for the weekend of February 3. But if you can’t do that, or you dislike good music, or if there’s some other reason keeping you from clicking over to the RFJT site, you can listen to my few minutes here.

Transcript below the fold for my hard of listening friends.

Bobcats Belong in Joshua Tree

As a lot of Radio Free Joshua Tree listeners may know already, bobcats are big news in this part of the desert these days. Local resident Tom O Key found a bobcat trap illegally placed on his property a couple weeks ago, and he let a bunch of his neighbors know about it, and the bobcat feces hit the alluvial fan. It turns out that “harvesting” — that’s what the bobcat trappers call it, “harvesting,” as though they were responsible for planting a crop — it turns out that “harvesting” bobcat pelts is a moderately lucrative pastime for a few so-called men in the Morongo Basin. They trap cats during the state’s legal season, which ended January 31. They kill the cats and sell their body parts, with pelts mainly going to China for the fur trade.

People here are angry. The bobcats here are a source of wonder and delight for many of us, a touchstone for a wild world that many of us see only rarely, through our human-filtered minds.

In decades of desert travel, living here and visiting when I couldn’t live here, I’ve seen only one wild bobcat. It burst out of a copse of trees, crossed a little road in front of me in broad daylight, looked at me blinking for a full minute when it got to the far side. It was an amazing moment. I think my mouth hung open for another full minute after the big cat slipped into the creosote and vanished.

And my natural inclination is to tell you where I saw that cat — it wasn’t that long ago, and it was an experience I’d like to share. But I can’t tell you where it was. As Joshua Tree folks learned from Steve Brown’s article in the SunRunner a couple months back, bobcat trappers and hunters pay close attention to those of us who love wildlife. They keep track of photos posted to Facebook and Twitter, figure out where the bobcat was and when, then use that information to set their traps. Sharing a photo with location information can mean a death sentence for the animal.

In essence, the trappers take our publicly shared joy in wild things and seize it. They privatize it.

There are so many little moments like that bobcat meeting in the desert, that bring wonder and astonishment, if you’re open to them. The drift of bighorn sheep around the corner of a cliff face, the whoosh of an unseen falcon past your head, the sudden electricity making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end when a Mojave green rattlesnake buzzes at you from the next bend in the wash. And we desert-lovers, we’re story-making animals, It’s what we do. And when we take those stories — in pictures, text or speech — and we share them, those who would skin our desert and sell it are there, listening. They turn our common love of the wild things around us into cold hard cash in their own pocket, and they call that “love.”

I used to wonder whether the common disdain for the desert you find among many Americans could be cured with a little sitting. If you could bring them out here, the engineers and the bureaucrats who determine the fate of entire swathes of desert, the offroaders who insulate themselves from the desert they trample with noise and speed and dust and armor, the planners of airports and the reckless drivers desperate to get to the casino bar, if you could bring them out here and park them in the outback with a cushion and a bottle of water and just ask them to sit, would they feel a change growing in them? Would familiarity breed contentment with the desert as it is?

And then I remembered the seemingly endless human capacity for maintenance and repair of that shell of apathy that protects most of us from actual engagement with the world. I remember that each surveyor, each backhoe operator, each off-road vandal and petroglyph defacer will claim to love the desert. I remember the old Gary Larson cartoon with the two loggers eating lunch in a sea of stumps, one saying that he could never work in an office because he loves spending the day in the woods.

Men will follow bighorn rams quietly, sometimes for days, observing them and learning the subtleties of their behavior, claim to reach new heights of respect for their majesty and grace, and then they will shoot them. Seems some people can only appreciate beauty if they destroy it.

Bobcat trapping season is over for the year, but hunters can still take the cats legally through February. Our other common local predator, the coyote, can be hunted or trapped all year. And as anyone with a little background in ecology knows, hunting predators opens you up to a world of trouble.

You may have hear that some scientists expect Joshua trees to be extinct in the park here by the end of this century. This is as a result of hotter climate. There are a number of ways that warming climate will cause problems for Joshua trees here, but one big problem is the way small animals react to drought. Biologists have found that during dry spells, small animals like antelope squirrels and rabbits will get moisture by eating through Joshua trees’ bark to get to the green tissue beneath. Many trees in the park have been girdled all the way around their bases by these little gnawing animals. When a Joshua tree is girdled, its leaves no longer get water and nutrients from the roots. The tree can die.

This is a serious threat to Joshua trees, and as Joshua Tree National Park’s climate gets warmer, dry seasons will come more often, and rodents and rabbits will pose a greater threat to the trees. It’s not the rabbits’ fault: they’ll just be trying to survive.

Predators control the numbers of those rabbits and antelope squirrels. If you have bobcats and coyotes around to eat the little mammals, you have fewer little mammals to damage the trees. But get rid of those predators, and the prey overpopulates the habitat.

Sum it up this way: lose the bobcats and coyotes and we lose the Joshua trees. It’s a little bit more complex than that, but not by too much. Some of the Morongo Basin trappers claim to “harvest” up to five cats a night in season. That’s five cats a night whose great, great, great, great grandkittens won’t be around to help during the drought of 2025. We need to change the laws that allow this kind of trapping, and we need to do it now.

3 thoughts on “Audio: bobcats, beauty, and the desert

  1. Dave Bonta

    Excellent, Chris. We are blessed to have bobcats here, too, but in 40 years of residence, I’ve only glimpsed one, once. Trail cams and tracks in the snow reveal them as regular residents. Though I’m a big fan of deer hunting, and to some extent small game, predator hunting and trapping is strictly outlawed on our property for just the sorts of reasons you describe. (And think of all the Lyme disease-carrying mice our resident coyotes, foxes and bobcats are eating!) As for “harvest,” that’s straight-up game-manager jargon, as I’m sure you know. They don’t seem to realize that they’d probably alienate far fewer non-hunters if they’d simply say “kill.” Bureaucrats do love euphemisms.

  2. John Stevens

    My response is to apply for a hunting / trapping license myself and not use it. This will squeeze out the real hunters and save our wildlife legally. I’ll proudly call myself a NON-hunter.
    I encourage everyone who is disgusted by the fur fashion trade to become a non-hunter too.
    Apply today!

  3. KG

    It never works to battle greedy people. Even if your cause is just. Make this message known to the people in China who also care for the environment like you do. They can spread the word to other Chinese people to make them aware. Then they can boycott the pelts. Only then will the greedy people lose their motivation and leave the worthless/precious cats alone.