Roberta Newbury Q&A

It gives me great pleasure to present this Q&A with the Red Lynx Biologist herself, Dr. Roberta Newbury. As a fellow blogger with a slightly offbeat topic,

Bobbie (as her close peeps refer to her ;-p) has been a source of inspiration and encouragement to me. I have enjoyed reading her blog and cheering her on as she worked on her PhD (thus her insistence on the rest of you calling her Dr. Newbury!). Ok, enough of the introduction, let’s get started!

courtesy of Roberta Newbury, PhD

courtesy of Roberta Newbury, PhD

 How did you become interested in wildlife in general and bobcats specifically?

I have loved animals for as long as I can remember.  I was born and raised in Whitefish, Montana, which is in the northwest part of the state, specifically at the northern end of the Flathead Valley.  My family (Mom, Dad, 3 brothers, and me) lived a bit outside of town.  We were not well off by any means—in fact, we were rather poor—but there was always food on the table and clothes on our backs.  New clothes were not common in our household.  They were often hand-me-downs from older cousins or yard sale purchases.

However, we were lucky in many, many ways, and I wouldn’t trade where and how I grew up for the world.  We had a dog or two, cats, a couple of horses, a milk cow for a while, and a rabbit on occasion.  Once we even cared for a young sheep for about 6 months that we found abandoned in the woods; you can imagine my mother’s surprise when we came home leading a sheep by our belts!

Best of all, we had thousands and thousands of acres of forest chocked full of critters to explore, with many beautiful rivers and lakes to play in.  My brothers and I knew every inch of that forest within a 5-mile radius like the backs of our hands.  We were constantly out riding our bikes or hiking through the forest or swimming in a lake or wide spot in a stream.  Or engaged in other less safe activities, such as rockhopping across the Stillwater River in the whitewater section of the river where it boiled through a small canyon, free climbing cliffs, or exploring a series of caves we discovered about 2 miles from our house.  Looking back, it’s amazing I’m still alive!  Except back then we didn’t call this hiking or getting exercise, we simply referred to it as playing.

So back around to the question.  I have always loved wildlife and wild places.  They are home, happiness, and wonder to me.  For example, my mother tells me I was constantly bringing insects I captured, or a plant I found (usually flowers), or pretty rocks home with me that I had found on my adventures by as early as 3 years old.  I would always want to know what they were and what they did.  (“Good grief, child!  I don’t know!  Put it outside!  NOW!!!!)  Soon enough a whole series of field guides appeared on the family bookshelf:  birds, mammals, insects, plants, geology, and so on.  I had originally wanted to become a veterinarian, because that’s what you do if you love animals, but upon starting my undergrad, I quickly realized that I wanted to make a career out of studying wild animals.  Whatever that meant!

My childhood memories are filled with animal stories.  Around the time I started kindergarten, and my older brother was in first grade, we became obsessed with catching the snowshoe hares that we would see in the mornings along the sides of our long, winding driveway.  We spent many hours attempting to catch the hares with a box propped up by a stick, with a carrot under the box as bait.  We had a long string tied to the stick that we would pull when a ‘rabbit’ took the bait.  It never did work!  Or the time when the four of us kids were playing with matchbox cars in a nice dirt spot near the hillside, and we looked up to see a black bear standing on its hind legs about 40 feet away watching us.  Of course, we had the daylights scared out of us, and my younger brothers were convinced it was a werewolf!  Or the time my friend and I were out horseback riding for the day on old Forest Service roads, and the horses started acting squirrelly.  We happened to look behind us to see a mountain lion casually following about 50 feet away.

But, one of the memories that stands out for me, was driving up to our property on Good Creek one summer morning in 1983, to cut firewood.  This was part of our usual summer routine.  There is a string of private land in the middle of my study site on the Tally Lake Ranger District, Flathead National Forest, and my parents owned 20 acres of it at that time.  I was about 5 ½, sitting in the bed of the old ’48 Ford with my big brother, leaning over the side looking up the road to see if we were there yet, when suddenly a HUGE wolf ran across the logging road in front of the truck.  This was long before the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.  Wolves naturally recolonized northwest Montana, specifically in Glacier National Park, the North Fork drainage, and other parts of Flathead and Lincoln counties, beginning in the late 1970s.  The wolf we saw was likely part of the newly formed Murphy Lake pack.  It was an amazing experience and to this day stands out in my mind’s eye.  I was hooked on carnivores at that moment.

Growing up, I only ever saw a mountain lion or two, but never saw a bobcat or a lynx.  And as you know, when you don’t see something, it’s often out of sight, out of mind.  Knowing what I know now, there had to have been bobcats around where I played as a child.  After I had finished my undergrad at the University of Montana in Missoula, I began working for the Wildlife Ecology unit of the Rocky Mountain Research Station, which is the research arm of the Forest Service and is separate from the National Forest branch.  This time (2001-2003) is when Lynx species became preeminent in my mind and the desired avenue of my future research interests.  The Wildlife unit is responsible for long-term research on Canada lynx in Montana, and was the driving force behind the National Lynx Survey in the late 1990s.  But, even then, bobcats were a peripheral research concern to many biologists, and only because bobcats were suspected to be the primary competitor of the Federally Threatened lynx in certain situations.  However, little effort was being made to examine bobcat ecology, and assess the level of competition between these congeners.

It wasn’t until I was working on my Master’s degree in east-central Illinois that I even saw my first bobcat!  I accidentally treed a bobcat in a cottonwood bottomland one night while tracking radiocollared raccoons, which were the focus of my studies at that time.  The bobcat was small-ish though at that time I had no comparison, but I recall that it was feisty and very unhappy with me.  I was enthralled.

When I started my doctoral research here in northwest Montana, it was to study Canada lynx in conjunction with the long-term snowshoe hare research that my advisor, Dr. Karen Hodges, was conducting in collaboration with Dr. L. Scott Mills, formerly at the University of Montana.  Tally is a deep snow area, and receives over 300 cm (118 inches or nearly 10 feet) of snow at mid-elevations (~4000 feet) over the course of the winter.  Deep snow is the realm of the snowshoe footed Canada lynx, not the small-footed bobcat.  I did not find any lynx on Tally, not a single track in 4 winter season; instead I found only bobcats.  EVERYWHERE.

I did not see a Montana bobcat until I caught one, and that was M1.  The rest is history.

 What’s one thing that surprised you about your work with bobcats?

I think the thing that surprised me most while working with bobcats is the general lack of knowledge people have that bobcats and lynx are different, and how to tell the difference.  The names, I have discovered are often used interchangeably, and I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Well, aren’t they the same thing?”  The answer, emphatically, is no.

I know from experience that bobcats and lynx can be notoriously difficult to tell apart, and we as biologists and managers need a way to rank sighting data.  Sighting data is notoriously unreliable, and false positive sightings of a rare animal can lead to conclusions and management actions that are erroneous.

Are bobcats antagonistic towards lynx or do they out-compete them?

I would not say that bobcats are antagonistic towards lynx specifically, meaning to say that I don’t feel that bobcats would fight or harass a lynx simply because it is a lynx.  My guess is the interaction is very similar to how resident bobcats or resident lynx behave towards conspecific neighbors.  Bobcats and lynx are territorial, but home range overlap varies between sexes, within sexes, and can depend on other factors such as prey densities, relatedness of individual animals, or the age of the individuals.  I suspect the interaction between bobcats and lynx that come into contact, whether they have neighboring home ranges, or one is dispersing through the other’s territory, will be much like bobcat-bobcat and lynx-lynx interactions.  These interactions may be detection of scent marks and avoidance by an interloper that enters a resident individual’s territory, or a face-to-face encounter that may be resolved by posturing, growling, or a fight.

I do think that there are certain conditions that allow bobcats to out-compete lynx, and vice versa.  For example, bobcats are much more generalized in their dietary requirements, and are typically more flexible in dietary behavior than the highly specialized lynx.  High prey densities of rodents may support bobcat populations in areas with harsh winter conditions.  Lynx do not readily switch from snowshoe hares to using alternate prey species, but bobcats are much more plastic in their prey-switching abilities.

Additionally, areas that experience regular freeze/thaw cycles in winter, which leads to hard, crusty snow may favor bobcats over lynx.  Hard, compacted snow removes the advantage that large snowshoe-like feet give the lynx over the bobcat, which sink deep in soft snow and expend larger amounts of energy pound for pound when compared to a lynx.  On the other hand, areas where snow stays soft and powdery the majority of the time are likely to favor lynx; lynx would out-compete bobcats in these conditions.  These specific examples can change year to year, and could favor lynx over bobcats for a time, or bobcats over lynx, depending on the exact circumstances.

courtesy of Roberta Newbury, PhD

courtesy of Roberta Newbury, PhD

If you were to hazard a guess, what do you think will be the result of continued global warming on the relationship between bobcats and lynx?

This question segues nicely from the previous.  I think that accelerated global warming coupled with continued habitat loss and conversion, will allow bobcats to continue to expand their geographic distribution north, increasing incidence of contact with lynx populations and potentially increasing situations where bobcats and lynx are in direct completion with each other.

Bobcats are flexible in habitat and prey requirements, as evidenced by bobcat populations found in the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico, swamps of Georgia and Florida, Midwestern agriculturally dominated landscapes, urban areas of Los Angeles, and the deep winter snows of the Rocky Mountains.  The bobcat subspecies found in the Intermountain West, Lynx rufus pallescens, is among the largest subspecies, and based on my observations and research, individuals in this population display phenotypic and behavioral plasticity that allows them to thrive in a winter environment.  Bobcats populations located in northwest Montana, Idaho, southern British Columbia and Alberta are likely to supply dispersers that may move north.

These bobcats are not the small, spotty, approximately twice the size of a housecat description one often reads regarding bobcats.  L. rufus pallescens in my study have males averaging 12 kg (26.5 lbs) and females averaging 9.5 kg (21 lbs), and are as large as Canada lynx in this area.  It’s not simply mass though, these bobcats are tall and leggy.  Additionally, bobcats on my study site have amazingly dense winter coats, are not overtly spotted and are more grayish, often have surprisingly large ear tufts, and had paw measurements that were typically 1-2 cm larger than typical bobcat paw measurements.  These bobcats are suited to deep snows and long winters.

Habitat fragmentation and conversion is likely to favor the generalist bobcat, which adapts more rapidly to disturbance than do lynx.  Furthermore, global warming may lead to increased occurrence of freeze/thaw cycles in some locations with typically deep, soft winter snows.  These conditions may favor bobcats over lynx, allowing bobcats to expand northward.  However, global warming could lead to greater winter severity, given local site conditions.  If this leads to deeper snowfalls, or prolonged extreme cold, such conditions would likely favor lynx.  It would be nice to have a crystal ball to forecast the future!

But I feel, given our history, that the human population will continue to grow, we will continue to fragment and convert natural landscapes, and we will create landscapes that favor a flexible generalist species over specialist species.  Given this pessimistic outlook, it will be difficult to maintain lynx populations in the contiguous United States.

I will get on my soapbox here:  we should not become complacent regarding management of generalist, “common” species such as the bobcat.  There is often the thought that since something is seemingly numerous, that they will always be around.  Time and time again, we have seen that this is not the case, as we are currently facing an accelerated extinction rate of the Earth’s species.  Bobcats play important roles in local ecosystems, such as rodent population control.  In some areas mesopredators such as bobcats are now acting as apex predators as they are currently the largest predator in some ecosystems.  It is often large bodied species and species at the top of the food chain that go extinct first.  I’m not saying that the bobcat is likely to go extinct anytime soon, but I am saying that NOW is the time to be proactive with respect to bobcat research, conservation, and management to ensure we have this wonderful creature on our planet in perpetuity.

Did you uncover any evidence of interactions between bobcats and other carnivores?

Yes, I had many observations of interactions between bobcats and other carnivores, some of which are circumstantial and hint at interesting behavioral patterns of carnivore interactions.  For example, one direct interaction that I observed was that a group of 5-7 coyotes killed one of my radiocollared female bobcats.

I suspect that the most common interspecific interaction for bobcats is with coyotes.  Bobcats and coyotes likely fill a similar ecological role in northwest Montana, as they overlap greatly in size, and likely share a very similar diet.  Bobcat/coyote interaction is one area I would love to conduct research on, specifically regarding the impacts of these interactions on bobcat kitten and coyote pup survival, the most vulnerable age class.

Circumstantial observations I made over the course of my study were what my techs and I referred to as ‘dog’ days or ‘cat’ days.  If we had wolves moving through the area, we never, without exception, had bobcats moving.  In this, I mean if we found wolf tracks, we did not find bobcat tracks that day.  If wolves were moving through, we did not find coyote tracks that day either; however, the next day the coyotes would have moved through and scent marked (urine or scat) on top of every place the wolves scent marked.

If we had a mountain lion moving through the area, we did not detect bobcats or coyotes that day, nor for several days after.  Mountain lions were detected walking on fresh wolf tracks and vice versa.  Lastly, bobcats and coyotes were detected using each other’s trails and crossing one another’s tracks routinely.

You often refer to bobcat M1 very fondly. Tell us about him.

courtesy of Roberta Newbury, PhD

courtesy of Roberta Newbury, PhD

Oh, M1.  Where to start?!  M1 is all personality.  And the definition of badass.  M1 was the first bobcat I captured, and the first bobcat I physically handled.  He was captured on December 12, 2009, which was the 12th day of the first field season I could handle bobcats, and also happened to be my field tech’s 25th birthday.  (I was out there wrangling that damn cat all night long for his birthday present!)

The research wasn’t real until then.  Suddenly, it was like this light burst over the mountain, the realization that I could make this happen, and I could succeed at this challenging project I had created.  It was a surreal day, and driving back down the mountain that day after collaring M1, we kept saying to each other, “Did that really happen today?”

Everything went very smoothly with his handling, primarily because M1 focused his anger and defense on the largest of the two humans, which was not me!  This made anesthetizing him easy.  M1 was 12.5 kg at capture, and was an adult male 4-6 years old.  M1 was in his prime and an amazingly handsome cat.  After we released him, he promptly dropped off the radar screen for nearly 8 weeks.  We could not locate him anywhere!  You can imagine the panic I felt!  I laugh remembering this feeling because now I know that M1 was covering a territory of ~120 km2 in winter!

We rarely could locate M1 via telemetry, and I had no funds in the budget for aerial telemetry.  He would just appear in one of our traps after weeks incommunicado.  I’m still convinced he HALO jumped in.  The traps we caught him in were usually baited with an entire hindquarter of deer.  He would pass up traps, walk right past the door, with less meat in them, until he found one with his favorite cut of meat.  M1 would eat the entire hindquarter, including most of the bone; there was typically more than 10 lbs of meat on these, if not 20 lbs!  He was a hog!  It became a bit of joke as over the years of my study as we caught him over 20 times total.  Funnily enough, following his first capture, he ignored anyone else who was present but me; apparently, he had figured out that I was the ringleader of this little circus.  M1 was just a bit trap happy, but certainly did not need our help, as the winter I removed his radiocollar (which failed to drop properly), he weighed 15 kg.

One day we found a large mule deer buck (5 x 6) that had been killed by a bobcat.  There was evidence of a good struggle that covered ~50 m down a mountainside, and bobcat tracks were the only tracks around.  M1’s radio signal was so strong we did not need to attach the antenna to the cable to hear it.  Circumstantial evidence, but fairly compelling that it was M1 that brought down the deer.

We would release M1 from a trap, and he would run 20-30 meters and then stop and wash his paws.  On collar drop day, when the radiocollars failed to release, I was homing on M1, hoping that the collar had dropped, but not switched to mortality signal yet, only to spot M1 sitting and watching me in a small clearing among falling tamarack needles.  After staring at one another for a few seconds, M1 ran off, but the radio signal after that indicated that M1 followed me back up the ridge to the truck.

A few more anecdotes of M1’s badassery.  In one 24 hour period, he moved 16.3 km, from 4200 feet over a mountain at nearly 7000 feet, back down to 3200 feet.  Interesting enough, but it also dropped 29 inches of snow at valley elevations (3000 feet) during this time-period, and the temperature was around -10°F.  Now that’s tough.  M1 apparently had somewhere to go, and nothing stops a bobcat set on a goal.

Last story.  M1’s home range completely encompassed that of  M2 (sub-adult male) during Winter 2009/10.  In May of 2010, I have 5 days of GPS collar data for both cats with locations taken at the same time.  M2 is within 25-100 meters of M1 during these days at each location.  They appeared to be traveling together, or possibly M2 was following M1 closely.  I can’t imagine that they weren’t aware of one another at the very least.  I still have DNA samples from all of my bobcats; I am looking forward to examining relatedness of these two individuals.  I have suspicions that M2 is M1’s son.

What is it like to lose a study animal to a legal harvest?

It is difficult to lose one of your study animals under any circumstances, but losing an animal to legal harvest is a special challenge in several ways.

Everyone knows that you should not become attached to your study animals.  Why else are you doing this research though, if you don’t care about the individual animal?  Attachment is unavoidable for some of us.  I did not name the bobcats in my study, though sometimes a nickname leant itself to their personality.  However, numbering them didn’t reduce any personal connection to the animal for me.  M1—male bobcat, first male collared—was that bobcat’s name.  To me, saying M1 conjures in my mind everything about that individual:  the fire in his eyes, the intensity of how he did everything, the wildness, the smell of his fur, the feel of his coat, the sound of his growl, the excitement of hearing his radio signal after he had been AWOL for 8 weeks.  It’s visceral to me hearing someone say M1 aloud.

And I feel, particularly for those of us that study carnivores, attachment is difficult to avoid.  Carnivores are notoriously difficult to capture and study, they are often rare, elusive, and challenging to locate, even when radiocollared.  Additionally, studying carnivores is typically expensive and time consuming, so in conjunction with general rareness of larger bodied species, the cost of radiocollars and fieldwork dictates how many animals you can afford to collar and monitor.  For example, I had 8 radio collars, which cost ~$25,000.

I lost two study animals to legal trapping harvest:  M4 and F2.  I was grateful to have my radiocollars returned to me, but it’s a bittersweet feeling.  You know this animal as an individual, a sentient, thinking, feeling being, even if you only spent ½ hour physically handling the animal and a few hours waiting for it to recover from anesthesia.  You have spent long hours being cold, sometimes hypothermic to capture these few individuals.  You’ve spent too much time away from family doing this thing.  Your heart and soul goes into the work; you’ve hiked over mountains trying to get a radio signal, driven thousands of miles, spent days searching for a den that contained three tiny kittens.  These animals are your now, it’s hard to remember your before, and your efforts, work, and dedication to studying them represent your future.  It’s hard to see that end.

Many carnivore biologists are men. How has it been for you to work in a male-dominated field?

You know, I often don’t think about this much, though the carnivore world was certainly dominated by men in the recent past.  I grew up with three brothers, and over the years have had an equal number of male and female technicians that have worked directly for me, or that I have supervised on other projects.  So I am comfortable working with men; in some aspects, men are easier to work with, and in others, women are easier to work with.  How’s that for a sitting on the fence answer?  J  As a woman some things may take me a little longer to do, such as digging out a snowmobile.  But on the other hand, I’ve noticed that I’m less likely to get into a potentially difficult or dangerous situation, because I know very well what I am physically capable of, which is quite a lot, thank you very much.

Over half of the degrees awarded in the sciences, and the wildlife field in particular, currently go to women, so I think things are changing with regard to who runs large research projects on carnivores.  However, I have noticed subtle differences in how people react to hearing you are running a carnivore research project, or are even involved in challenging fieldwork, particularly when you are a woman with a family.  I encounter more questions where people, other biologists included, are concerned with my safety.  For example, well-meaning people will say things like what will I do if my snowmobile or truck gets stuck (get it unstuck, perhaps?), do I have proper safety equipment like avalanche beacons, do I have a check-in system set up, and so on.  I rarely see these same questions posed to men.  One of the things I find most difficult to not let get to me is the repeated expression of how difficult it must be to be away from my children.  I’m sure it’s difficult for men to be away from their spouses and children too, but I rarely hear this comment made to men.  It’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

So I do find that frustrating at times, but my typical approach is to keep my nose to the grindstone, conduct high quality, ethical research, keep showing up day after day, and to be a top-notch biologist with an amazing track record for quality research and publications, safety, and returning everything and everyone in one piece at the end of the day.  People can’t argue with quality, consistency, and competence.

For folks who might be interested in searching for a bobcat in the wild do you have any words of advice?

Well, this is going to require a fair bit of luck!

I would suggest that winter, if you have snowfall, would be one of the easiest times to find bobcat tracks.  Also, I would suggest checking in the mud around puddles or along waterways for tracks.  Remember, tracks are nearly the same as seeing the animal in the flesh.  That animal walked there, and tracks can tell you much about the animal’s activities, behavior, and wanderings.  If you follow a trail, you may be lucky enough to discover where the bobcat chased prey, maybe you will even find a kill site, where the bobcat captured prey.

You may find bobcat tracks along old roads or game trails.  It just takes patience and time to detect a bobcat.  Bobcats do like to move in the early morning or late evening hours, but I have seen bobcats sunning in the middle of the day in winter.  Heck, I even saw one sitting on the side of the road in the rain in June midafternoon!

What’s next for you? Any new projects in the works?

Right now, I am focusing on getting manuscripts from my dissertation data chapters ready to submit to peer-reviewed journals for publication.  The first manuscript on bobcat winter diet in northwest Montana is almost ready for submission.

I am currently looking for a post-doctoral position, hopefully in carnivore ecology.  I am also pursuing funding to keep research on this bobcat population going, likely through a post-doctoral position.  So the cryptic answer here is yes, there are new projects in the work, but they are in their infancy.  I am also in the process of applying for teaching/research positions at several universities; increasing my publications record will help with potential success here.

But in the meantime, the wildlife employment market is challenging, and I am not closing doors on any opportunities.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Bobcats are the coolest.

courtesy of Roberta Newbury, PhD

courtesy of Roberta Newbury, PhD

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3 Responses to “Roberta Newbury Q&A”

  1. Imogene Davis Q&A | Southwest Jaguars Says:

    […] interest in mesocarnivores took off when I worked for my good friend Dr. Roberta Newbury, whom you interviewed last year about her dissertation research on bobcats. Mesocarnivores can tell us so much about what […]

  2. Pantanal jaguar threat | Southwest Jaguars Says:

    […] ability to change. Sad news from the Pantanal, but with the proverbial silver lining. Thanks to Dr Newbury for passing this along! Read the article […]

  3. I’m thankful! | Southwest Jaguars Says:

    […] and give her a few bucks by clicking here. I did and you only have 3 more days to do so! Oh yeah, Newbury, you’re badass, too!! […]

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