Bobcat hunt called off

Local resident Sandie Phipps snapped this photo of a bobcat in Surry in 2013. On Wednesday the N.H. Fish and Game Department pulled a plan that would've allowed bobcats to be hunted for the first time in more than two decades.

CONCORD — Bowing to public pressure it faced throughout the past year, the N.H. Fish and Game Department on Wednesday withdrew its proposal to re-establish a bobcat hunting season.

The move comes after the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules objected to the proposal earlier this month.

In a 9-1 vote at the Statehouse on April 1, the committee objected on the grounds that a bobcat season would violate the federal endangered species act and that the proposal was not in the financial best interest of the public.

The Fish and Game Department made the decision after consulting with the N.H. Fish and Game Commission, which had originally approved a bobcat hunting season in February.

“It just didn’t make any sense for us to continue down the road,” said Glenn Normandeau, the executive director of Fish and Game, in an interview Wednesday. “I just made the decision to pull it and move on.”

The money Fish and Game would have made from selling all 50 bobcat permits in its proposal totaled $5,000, while the cost to implement the hunting season was estimated to be between $15,000 and $20,000 per year, according to the department’s website.

Those permits would have been issued via lottery. Each permitted hunter would have been allowed to capture one bobcat during the season, which would have taken place from the beginning of December through the end of January.

During the legislative committee’s meeting April 1, state Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, a committee member, said having a bobcat season would breach the endangered species act by putting Canada lynx, a threatened species, at risk of being hunted because the two cats have the same habitats.

Had the department gone forward with the proposal despite the legislative committee’s objection, Normandeau said he could only foresee a long, drawn-out battle between Fish and Game and the Legislature.

Fish and Game also had the option to modify its proposed rule, but Normandeau said he didn’t see any changes that would satisfy the joint committee’s objections.

“It was an argument about ‘no, no, no,’ “ he said. “I didn’t see anything in our proposal — which was very restrained — that really was going to make much difference on everyone’s positions.”

The proposal allowed trapping and hounding of the animal; it did not allow night hunting and would have required documentation of bobcats that were caught.

Withdrawal of the rule means the proposal is dead, according to Normandeau. For a bobcat season to be reconsidered, it would have to go through the whole rulemaking process all over again, he said.

Many rejoiced over the department’s decision.

Jeremy Wilson, executive director of the Hancock-based Harris Center for Conservation Education, said he was delighted to hear the proposal had been withdrawn.

The center had long protested a bobcat hunting season and had issues with the Fish and Game-commissioned study with the University of New Hampshire, which had been pivotal to the plans to re-start a hunting season.

The study revealed that the bobcat population has rebounded from about 100 to 150 in the 1980s to an estimated 800 to 1,200 throughout the state in 2014. Results from the four-year study were released in 2014.

On its website, Fish and Game lists the number of bobcats at 1,400 as of the winter of 2014.

The study tracked 19 bobcats in southwestern and southeastern New Hampshire; it also relied on the public to report bobcat sightings and submit photos.

Wilson said he thought the margin for error was too large, and he was also concerned about the future of hunting bobcats if the proposal took effect.

“We were worried that over time the level of hunt could grow in terms of the number of bobcats killed,” he said.

Colebrook resident John Harrigan, a well-known outdoorsman and longtime newspaper columnist, had been confident the proposal would eventually go down. He credited the amount of pressure put on the Fish and Game department and commission by people from across the state.

“I never had a doubt because I’ve got great faith in the judgment of New Hampshire’s people, and boy did they come out of the woodwork for this one,” Harrigan said.

Geoffrey Jones, chairman of the Stoddard Conservation Commission, said following the bobcat season proposal was an eye-opening experience for him in terms of how Fish and Game operates.

“As we’ve all found out, people are pretty upset, and they’re not only upset about opening a season on a species that’s still in recovery, but I think people are upset about the process,” he said.

Throughout the process, Jones said he didn’t think the Fish and Game commission ever listened to people’s concerns.

Fish and Game held a month-long comment period on the proposed season, allowing the public to submit opinions via email or mail. That period closed in February. Letters to the editor published in The Sentinel have overwhelmingly opposed the hunt.

The department received approximately 6,000 comments, with just about 250 in favor of the season, according to a department staffer.

The Fish and Game Commission made up of 11 members appointed by the governor and Executive Council, including one from each N.H. county, also held two public hearings in early February that drew heavy turnout, and where citizens got to voice their opinions.

Over a massive public outcry, N.H. Fish and Game Commissioners voted 5-4 on Feb. 17 to re-establish a bobcat hunting season for the first time in 27 years. Robert Phillipson of Keene, the commissioner from Cheshire County, voted in favor of the proposal.

Bobcats have been protected in New Hampshire since 1989 because of concerns about a diminishing number of the animals in the state.

Going forward, changes need to be made in how the department runs to represent the interests of all people, according to Jones.

“To me, to take a species like the bobcat that’s still in recovery, to start hunting it, it felt so wrong to me,” Jones said.

The proposed hunt had drawn concern from national animal-rights and conservation groups.

A joint news release from the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity and Washington, D.C-based Animal Welfare Institute Wednesday said both groups were pleased with the decision to pull the bobcat hunting season.

The Animal Welfare Institute was considering bringing a lawsuit against Fish and Game over its proposal, claiming it would violate the endangered species act by putting Canada lynx at risk of being hunted because of their resemblance to bobcats.

“We’re so relieved the agency listened to our concerns, and that New Hampshire’s bobcats and lynx are safe from hunters and trappers,” Collette Adkins, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney and biologist, said in the release. “At public expense, these bobcat seasons would have benefited only the few who’d like to kill these beautiful animals for sport or ship their pelts overseas to China for profit. The state heard loud and clear that people value these cats in the wild and don’t want to see them cruelly trapped or shot.”

Matt Nanci can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or Follow him on Twitter @MNanciKS.