The State We're In

Shy, elusive bobcats rebounding in New Jersey

Mar 28, 2024

By Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director

You might think a biologist who’s spent nearly two decades researching bobcats in New Jersey would spot these native wildcats on a regular basis. If so, you’d be wrong!

“For me, without cheating (by tracking a bobcat wearing a radio collar), I think I’ve seen a bobcat in the wild only three times,” said Gretchen Fowles, a biologist with the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP).

“Bobcats are very challenging to study, because they’re wide-ranging and elusive,” explains Fowles, who leads the state’s bobcat research. “They’re like a flash. I see one and that’s it … a split-second observation.” A glimpsed cat will quickly dart out of sight, its patterned markings blending into the surroundings.

But there are other ways to study these endangered cats, and Fowles’ research indicates that the state’s bobcat population is rebounding after nearly vanishing over 50 years ago due to habitat loss.

Bobcats are New Jersey’s only native wildcat, and they’re far smaller than cougars or lions – about twice the size of a housecat.  Females generally weigh 18 to 25 pounds, while males can weigh up to 38 pounds. Their markings range from spotted patterns to “tabby” stripes, and their distinctive bobbed tail has a black tip.

The state’s restoration efforts began in the late 1970s, when wildlife officials trapped bobcats in Maine and brought them back to New Jersey to augment the small remaining population. From 1978 to 1982, 24 bobcats were released in sections of Warren, Sussex and Morris counties north of Interstate 80.

Fowles estimates that New Jersey’s bobcat population has since grown to “the 200-400 range, but maybe closer to 500.” Nearly all bobcats are found in the northwestern section of the state.

Fowles uses several methods for collecting data on bobcat populations and movements. One is going with a trained detection dog – her current partner is “Fly,” a cattle dog mix – to find bobcat scat in the woods. The scat is collected and its DNA analyzed, which reveals the cat’s gender and helps researchers keep track of individual animals over time.

Often, Fowles and Fly are directed to potential bobcat sites by reports from residents, who have either glimpsed the cats in person or caught images on motion-detector cameras known as trail cams. As technology has improved, she said, more people are putting trail cams in their yards.

The ENSP also has its own trail cams at highway locations where bobcats and other animals are known to use drainage culverts and stream crossings to get from one side of the road to the other.

Sadly, another source of population data is dead bobcats found along roadsides, the victims of motor vehicle collisions. ENSP collects their bodies, tests the DNA, and keeps track of “mortality hot spots.”

“We’ve had more bobcat road kills in the past several years than we’ve ever had,” reports Fowles – an indication that the bobcat population is increasing. Over 70 percent of the bobcats found dead along roadsides are under two years old, an age when inexperienced young cats are striking out to find their own territory.

Fowles’ research underscores a major challenge for bobcats and other rare species: how to expand their ranges in the face of formidable barriers like highways. Sometimes traffic volumes are so high, she said, that bobcats won’t even attempt to cross, preventing what might otherwise be a natural expansion of their territory.

Interstate 78 is a good example. Fowles said there is plenty of suitable bobcat habitat south of I-78, but few cats have been detected there. However, she said, a dead bobcat was recently found on an I-78 ramp in Hunterdon County – a possible sign that bobcats are trying to expand their range southward.

Spurred largely by bobcat research, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife in 2015 launched its “Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey” program, or CHANJ for short. The program aims to help endangered wildlife by improving connectivity between habitats.

According to Fowles, bobcats and other rare wildlife can be helped through three major actions: protecting land, managing and restoring habitats, and mitigating the dangers of road crossings.

The state preserves significant amounts of land on its own, and those efforts are supplemented by land preservation efforts by counties, municipalities and conservation nonprofits, including New Jersey Conservation Foundation.

Ten years ago, The Nature Conservancy introduced “Bobcat Alley,” a vision for preserving and connecting habitat in a 32,000-acre corridor in Warren and Sussex counties. Recently, because of Bobcat Alley’s significance to biodiversity, the project’s scope was tripled to more than 96,000 acres. NJ Conservation is thrilled to be a partner in the land preservation efforts within Bobcat Alley – and beyond!

Efforts are currently underway to reduce wildlife mortalities from motor vehicle collisions by increasing and improving crossings like stream culverts beneath roadways. Montclair State University is coordinating a project to map and evaluate every location where a waterway passes under a highway. And many new crossings are in the planning stages, thanks to a flood law that requires new culverts to provide dry passage for wildlife.

This spring, as you’re driving around, keep an eye out for bobcats and other wildlife near busy roadways. They may be looking for a place to cross, so slow down!

Bobcat kittens born last spring are likely to have stayed with their mother for their first year. But when this year’s litter comes along, the bobcat yearlings will be forced to go out on their own. As Fowles’ research has demonstrated, young bobcats are naïve about traffic, and are the ones in the most danger of being hit.

If you’re looking for a way to help with rare wildlife research, check out New Jersey Wildlife Tracker, a mobile-friendly website, at An easy-to-use online form allows observers to report where and when rare animals were spotted, and to attach photos, videos or audio recordings.

To learn more about bobcats, go to,locally%20extinct)%20from%20the%20state. For information on the Bobcat Alley initiative, go to

And to learn about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at

About the Authors

Alison Mitchell

Co-Executive Director

John S. Watson, Jr.

Co-Executive Director

Tom Gilbert

Co-Executive Director, 2022-2023

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director, 1999-2021

View their full bios here.


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