MITCHELL, S.D. -- From the moment Brad Gates trapped his first bobcat along the James River, he was hooked.
While Gates was stunned to see a near 30-pound bobcat caught on his foot-hold trap that he placed on his land 15 miles east of Mitchell, he had to make a tough decision and release the predator back into the wild.
That was because Hanson County lacked a bobcat trapping season at the time he caught the critter a year ago, which meant Gates would have broken state law by harvesting the bobcat.
“I was with a good friend of mine who also traps when I caught the first one, and he thought it was a coyote from a distance. After I loosened the trap, it went straight under my truck, and I hopped up on the tailgate. When my friend pulled forward, it was just staring at me from the ground and bolted,” Gates said. “I thought I got lucky when I caught the first one, but then a month later, I caught another one and realized there are more bobcats living in the area than just a few that strayed away. Since they’re so rare to trap around here, it was tough knowing I had to let it go.”
After experiencing the rush of trapping yet another bobcat in the past year, it prompted Gates to submit a petition to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks in hopes of establishing a bobcat trapping season in Hanson County. The petition was met with support by the GF&P Commission, which ultimately provided their approval in September.
“It was awesome working with the GF&P, and they absorbed everything I brought to the table. It just shows that change is possible, if you do your research and put in the time to take the proper steps, it can be done,” Gates said. “I’m proud to have helped this change so that future generations can have the same opportunity.”
Gates only brought a petition regarding a bobcat trapping season in Hanson County, but it ended up impacting the entire eastern half of the state. The state's first bobcat trapping season that encompasses every East River county will run from Dec. 8 to Jan. 17, 2021.
Making the case for an East River season
In Keith Fisk’s 11-year career with the state’s GF&P, he had not seen a petition for East River bobcat trapping until Gates brought his forward this year. Fisk, a wildlife damage program administrator with the GF&P, worked with Gates to bring the petition to the commissioners.
Although bobcats are rarely trapped in eastern South Dakota compared to other predators and wild animals such as coyotes, badgers and raccoons, Fisk said there continues to be a steady amount of bobcats harvested each year.
According to 2019 GF&P data, a total of 260 bobcats were either trapped or hunted in the state during the 2019 season, with 55 in the eastern half of the state. Of the East River counties that had a trapping season in 2019, Gregory, Charles Mix and Bon Homme counties saw the most bobcats trapped. Gregory saw the highest number of bobcats trapped and harvested with 30, while Charles Mix County reported 12 followed by Bon Homme County’s nine.
However, Gates' catch and releases, paired with nearby residents sightings, was critical information for the GF&P Commission to make their decision. Gates' close friend, Tom Riddle, was another instrumental player in helping him navigate through the petition process and provide the Commission with data to prove enough bobcat population inhabit the area.
“His incidental reports led well into the discussion of looking to expand an opportunity for hunters and trappers in eastern South Dakota. If somebody does have an opportunity and there is a bobcat there, that is a pretty cool opportunity," Fisk said.
To help get a better understanding of whether there is sufficient bobcat population in the eastern counties to merit a trapping season, Fisk said limiting each trapper to one bobcat per season has been an effective starting point.
Prior to the expansion, there were 10 East River counties that had a bobcat trapping season, which included Bon Homme, Brule, Buffalo, Charles Mix, Clay, Hughes, Hutchinson, Hyde, Union and Yankton counties. Since 1975, all West River South Dakota counties have had a bobcat trapping and hunting season, due to the abundance of habitat.
According to Fisk, all bobcat trappers must possess a furbearer license. In addition, whole carcasses and pelts of each bobcat must be presented to GF&P personnel for registration and tagging within five days of harvest.
While bobcats are capable of living in a wide variety of habitats, they typically prefer areas along rivers and rugged terrain. With the abundance of riparian areas along the James River, Fisk said it’s no surprise that bobcats are inhabiting areas near the river in southeast South Dakota such as Hanson County.
“It makes sense, because there is a lot of timber and wooded draw right along the riparian area along the James River, and that is really good bobcat habitat,” Fisk said.
Early on in the process, Gates said some state officials were questioning whether the Hanson County area had adequate habitat to allow for its very own bobcat trapping season. With the number of sightings that his neighbors and nearby residents reported, paired with the two Gates trapped, he was confident that the habitat on his land had all the elements to support a strong bobcat population.
“The habitat is absolutely there, and there is plenty of it,” Gates said. “I really do think there are more bobcats around the area here than what one may think.”
A passion for trapping
While it’s been a little over five years since Gates began actively trapping with a furbearer license, he’s developed a deep passion for the outdoor sport. Had it not been for Jim Kummer, a local trapper, Gates said he wouldn’t have the trapping knowledge that he does today.
Kummer has been trapping along the south end of Davison County since he was 12. Over the past four decades, Kummer, who is now in his early 50s, has never trapped a bobcat. Kummer said it’s not uncommon for many East River trappers to go an entire lifetime without catching a bobcat, while Gates on the other hand has already caught two in his first five years of trapping.
“It’s all about the habitat and rivers,” Kummer said. “I don’t trap along rivers, so that is the big difference.”
From finding the right trapping lure to learning how to modify traps, Gates said Kummer has been a great mentor.
Kummer is somewhat rare in that he skins the animals he traps right in his backyard. Gates said skinning is a process that he’s still learning each time he does it. Although trappers have different motivations, such as collecting fur from the animals to sell or practicing wildlife management, Gates said the thrill of trapping is what fuels his passion for it. He hopes to pass that passion on to his kids.
“I really love the challenge of trapping,” Gates said. “It takes a lot of work to get a wild animal to step on a 2-inch pan. I’m still learning everyday, and I hope to pass this on to my kids.”
With the rarity of trapping a bobcat in the area, rather than skinning it for the fur, Gates said he plans on mounting the first two he traps in order to display them. As the inaugural bobcat trapping season that he helped establish is a month away, he will soon be taking a crack at catching his third one.
“They say the third time's a charm, so we’ll see how it goes this winter,” Gates said.