A recent visitor to the chunky hill country of southeastern Ohio saw everything he expected to see there. There was the rugged terrain, the ancient rocks scattered across the landscape, and the endless stands of vigilant pines. Then he saw something that made him forget everything else.
On an evening walk near the Wayne National Forest that was part scouting trip for future deer hunts and part therapy to escape the stress of the job and the constant harassment of cell phones and BlackBerrys, he encountered a piece of Ohio's past.
There on a slim ridge of rock, maybe 30 feet above the crude footpath that wound its way up and down through a ravine, he saw a bobcat. Not a raccoon, a possum or a coyote that for a fleeting moment might have looked like a bobcat - he saw a bobcat.
This guy wasn't confused, he wasn't imagining things, he wasn't drinking, and he wasn't going for a walk without his glasses. This guy knows the woods and he knows his wildlife, and if he said he saw a bobcat, then he saw a bobcat.
It was fascinating on its own, the fact that he had encountered a bobcat in the wild. But what made the story even more interesting is that he was hesitant to say a word about it, for fear he would be ridiculed for having one of the previously stated shortcomings. Fear of not being believed had essentially prevented him from sharing the excitement of his experience.
What this woods wanderer did not know was that he had just joined a club with growing membership. There were more than 100 confirmed sightings of bobcats in Ohio last year, and nearly that many the year before. When you throw in the sightings that were not "officially" confirmed, they likely number in the hundreds.
Unfortunately, what happens in many cases where rare or unusual sightings take place is that the first reaction of the experts and many others is to scoff at the mere suggestion. Some people are too full of themselves to believe that if they haven't seen something, then no one else could have witnessed it either.
Now this wasn't a yeti, a jackalope, a little green man stepping off a spaceship, or Bob Barker. Those would enter the realm of the absurd. This was a reunion between one outdoorsman and a creature his great-great grandfather might have seen in the Ohio hill country early in the 19th century.
The bobcat was common in this territory before the area was settled, but when man moved in and cities developed and the landscape in many parts of Ohio was transformed for agricultural purposes, the bobcat was much less comfortable here. For a reclusive animal that thrived in wild surroundings, the changing Ohio was no longer home.
Wildlife biologists estimate that by the time of the Civil War, the bobcat was no longer present in Ohio. It wasn't until about 40 or 50 years ago that a few unverified reports of bobcat sightings started to trickle in. Over the past four decades, there have been close to 500 accounts of bobcat encounters in Ohio that have been verified by the experts.
Before a sighting of any unusual animal goes into the official record in Ohio, it has to be verified with photos of the animal or its tracks, or road kill, or trapping. Remote cameras have become a very valuable tool in this process, and the evidence that bobcats are again on the prowl in southeastern Ohio is significant.
The roster of wildlife making its home in the Buckeye State is never set in stone. We have seen populations of eagles, wild turkeys and coyotes rise in recent years. There have been more sightings, confirmed and otherwise, of bears in Ohio. Reports of big cats in our state cannot be ignored.
An opportunity to witness one of these creatures in the wild should be celebrated, not ridiculed or kept secret. If Ohio is once again offering sound habitat for bears, wild turkeys and bobcats, that just makes a walk in the woods hold more promise, with the potential to encounter one of these original residents of our state.
Matt Markey is the A-T outdoors columnist.
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