By Courtney Vaughn | Hi-Desert Star

MORONGO BASIN — Until recently, local bobcats had few predators. They feasted on ground squirrels and cottontail rabbits, rarely encountering a creature of threat.

Booming pelt prices in countries like China and Russia have changed that.

Currently, three bobcat trappers are licensed in the Morongo Basin, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It is legal for them to hunt and trap bobcats on public, non-protected lands in California during a 69-day season from Nov. 24 to Jan. 31.

There is no limit to the number of cats a single person can legally trap each season. In the 2010-11 license year, nearly 1,200 bobcats were legally harvested in the state.

Some Morongo Basin residents are outraged at the hunting and trapping of local wildlife — animals that organizations have spent millions of dollars trying to protect.

One local licensed trapper sees it differently, and if he sets his traps right, he can literally make a killing.

Bobcat pelts can sell on the fur market for $80 to $1,700, according to the local trapper, who asked that his name be withheld because he feared retribution.

The man began trapping and killing bobcats nearly two years ago. He’s licensed, well aware of state regulations and happy to comply.

“Hunting and trapping is legal statewide on virtually all public land, but there are several exceptions and there are zones and restrictions for certain types of animals,” Andrew Hughan, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Tuesday. “It’s really, really complicated, and I actually feel for the hunters.”

Bobcat harvesting drew little attention until recently, when area residents began finding traps on and near their properties.

Tom O’Key, a local astronomer and conservation activist, was appalled to find a bobcat trap on his land abutting Joshua Tree National Park. O’Key removed the trap, called the county Sheriff’s Department and eventually spoke to the trapper.

“I found the trap night before last under a jojoba bush,” O’Key said last week. “I left a note saying the sheriff had been noticed and stay off my land.”

The trapper, who mistook O’Key’s property for public land, said Thursday that he does report each kill to the local Fish and Wildlife warden before he sends the pelts to the fur auction. The average bobcat pelt from the Morongo Basin will fetch $200 to $700 on the market, he said.

While most wildlife activists scoff at the trapper’s business, he reiterated his rights and compliance with the law.

“It’s in the trapper’s best interest not to decimate the bobcat population,” he said, insisting, “the area’s bobcat population is healthy; they have no natural predators here. There are more bobcats that die from old age than trapping.”

According to the North American Fur Auction website, the company expects increases in fur sales this year, with China being the largest consumer, followed by Russia and Korea. The company successfully sold muskrat, otter, fox and coyote pelts in 2012. The auction company notes that fur sales are down in Europe and North America, but the demand for fur trim remains strong in both regions.

The trapper declined to disclose the number of wild cats he catches in one season, but said among the nearly 30 traps he has placed throughout the Morongo Basin, he’s caught “more than expected” this year, noting a recent harvest of five cats in one night.

“It’s a hobby. I’ve learned more about predators and wildlife by trapping,” he said.

A local active-duty Marine, he said even if he wasn’t making a profit off the animals, he’d probably still be trapping.

“Bobcats are awesome animals,” he said.

It may be the only sentiment he shares with animal activists and conservationists.

He’s careful not to divulge too much about his practice, but he does want the public to know he numbers each of his traps and checks them every day, as required by law. He uses cages, not foothold traps, which are illegal in California.

He said he kills, or “dispatches,” all of the animals he traps almost immediately after finding them, usually with a rifle. He then must skin each one and treat the hides. For the self-described outdoorsman, it’s just part of the process and to him, it’s worth it. After he retires, he plans to continue to pursue the fur industry as a means of extra income for his family.

© Hi-Desert Star 2013