Earlier this year, the National Park Service contacted a homeowner in Westlake Village, a community in northwest Los Angeles, with quite a discovery. The Park Service tracked a bobcat den to their backyard.
Even more remarkable, the young bobcat mother, cataloged as B-362 by researchers, had been tagged with a GPS collar in the Thousand Oaks area just one day before the deadly Woolsey Fire. The fire, which was one of the worst wildfires in California history, destroyed over 1,600 structures and left three people dead. Luckily, the mother survived and found safe shelter, even after losing her habitat. Joanne Moriarty, veteran biologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Park Service, expressed relief that the bobcats found shelter and survived the deadly fire.
“The homeowner actually had no idea there was a bobcat denning in their backyard,” she said. “We were following the female through telemetry and we were able to determine she had a den by watching her behavior. We then reached out to the homeowner and asked for permission to access the den. It is the first time we have had a female den in a residential backyard.”
The den contained four kittens (one male and three females), named B-364, B-365. B-366 and B-367. While their mother was away, biologists checked their weight, measured them and gave each of them tags.
“This cat first had to deal with her habitat getting completely burned in the fire and then finding a new home in an unburned area,” Moriarty said. “She chose a den in thick brush where she could keep her kittens safe.”
Bobcats are a species of small wild cats, approximately double the size of a domestic cat. They are a very adaptable animal and live in a variety of environments, including deserts, forests and even high-density urban areas.
Since 1996, the National Park Service has studied bobcats in the Santa Monica Mountains, and while human encroachment on their habitat is their greatest threat, the bobcat’s high adaptability and strict rules for hunting the bobcat has kept them off endangered species lists. But the Woolsey fire altered wildlife habitats in devastating ways. The drought has affected reproduction habits as well.
“Over the years we have seen years of very high bobcat reproduction (100% of females being followed) and years of very low reproduction (0% of females being followed),” Moriarty said. “We have seen more years with low reproduction in the last decade than in the previous two decades (the study has been going since 1996). I suspect that the low reproduction is correlated with drought years, but we will need to investigate the pattern further to determine for sure if this is the case.”
In the aftermath of the Woolsey fire, residents and Park Service officials have clashed over leaving food and water for the wild animals displaced from their habits, which biologists strongly opposed. On Facebook, one ranger posted: "What is the absolute best thing you can do for wildlife? Leave them alone and let them figure this out."
B-362 appears to have done just that. Now the kittens will figure it out, as well. Typically, a bobcat mother will keep kittens in their den for about three months and take care of them for up to 11 months. As the kittens grow more independent — usually around 9 to 11 months — they will continue to check in with their mother periodically.
"Researchers are not sure why they do this, but they speculate that it's likely an anti-predator behavior," NPS spokeswoman Ana Cholo said in a statement. "Mom will typically also keep them in dens until they are 12 weeks of age, and then at that point they will follow her as she hunts and goes about her day."
Moriarty added that while it's been a difficult time for wildlife in the area, "we're happy to see [B-362] thriving despite the challenges."